Solitary Man

Lifer Bill Herron knew exactly how to get out of jail -- until 16 years ago, when the Missouri Department of Corrections locked him in solitary

Jan 23, 2002 at 4:00 am
Three days a week, for one hour, Bill Herron can trade his 8-foot-square cell for a fenced dog run.

That cage is twice as long as his cell but half as wide. Three times a week, Herron has a chance to breathe fresh air for a change. But it is also a chance to be hit with flying shit or piss or get caught in the crossfire of the spit fights that erupt between prisoners in the four adjacent dog runs.

Herron forgoes his chance for recreation.

"You're not given any choice of who is in the cage next to you," Herron says. "They are allowed to put a nut in the cage there. They just go down the line and stick anybody in there they desire. They're liable to have a prisoner that's psychotic. I just quit going."

Prison policy allows solitary confinement in the "administrative segregation" unit, where "an inmate may be temporarily placed for the security and good order of the institution."

But "temporarily" is a relative term when it comes to the Missouri Department of Corrections' relationship with Bill Herron. Herron has been in the ad-seg unit for 16 years, longer than any other state prisoner -- longer than Lawrence Merola, for example, who has a similar record of murder and escape but has been much more violent while in prison and whose longest stretch in solitary has been seven months.

"A lot of inmates did a lot of things," says Steven Hickman, whose 11 years as a prison nurse gave him an intimate perspective on the men who came and left "5C," Jefferson City's administrative-segregation unit. "[Herron] seemed to be the only one who went down there and never came out."

DOC officials won't talk specifically about Herron because he has filed civil lawsuits against them. But a recent legal brief filed by the Missouri attorney general's office summarizes the position of the state's adult-institutions director, George Lombardi, who supervises all of Missouri's prisons: "Lombardi has never seen such a unique combination of escape proneness, violence, guile and intelligence in one particular individual as demonstrated by Herron."

The brief goes on to say: "In order to move Herron from administrative segregation, DOC officials are looking for some evidence of a significant change in Herron to indicate something different from his past behavior in predicting future conduct."

Herron is not giving them that evidence. Instead he's making legal argument after legal argument that his confinement violates Missouri DOC policy, as well as the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Administrative segregation is designed as short-term punishment, depriving prisoners of social interaction, phone calls, dental floss, television and radio, among other things. These are painful losses that cause inmates to think more than twice before hiding forbidden items in their cells, fighting with other inmates, wandering into restricted areas or doing anything else that might get them sent to ad seg.

With the help of the attorney general's office, the Missouri DOC has been able to convince state and federal judges that Herron is not being abused.

The Jefferson City Correctional Center is the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River. It opened in 1836 and for its first hundred years was Missouri's only state prison. Its stone-and-concrete walls are at least 15 feet high on the inside; they link 15 towers, where officers stand poised with rifles.

Over the years, the guards in those towers have supervised the likes of Sonny Liston, who boxed while in prison and went on to become the world heavyweight champion. (A weathered portrait of Liston posing in a boxing stance remains high on one of the walls above the recreation field.) Pretty Boy Floyd counted days here, as did James Earl Ray, who escaped on April 23, 1967, by hiding in a breadbox as it was trucked out of the prison. A year later, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Others have left in coffins. Though Missouri's death row was moved to the Potosi Correctional Center, which opened in 1989, the old gas chamber remains intact at Jefferson City for tours by students and community groups. The chamber's 12 sides surround two cold metal seats where condemned prisoners sat for their final gulps of poisoned air. Photos of the executed hang on the wall next to the chamber. The 40 portraits include the faces of Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady, who kidnapped 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease from a Kansas City school in 1953, killed him and buried his body near Heady's house in St. Joseph, then demanded a $600,000 ransom from the child's wealthy parents.

Now the Jefferson City Correctional Center is on a deathwatch of its own. It's one of three maximum-security prisons in the state (besides Potosi, there's the Crossroads Correctional Center, in Cameron, which opened in 1997), and its replacement is under construction on the east side of Jefferson City and scheduled to open in 2003.

In the meantime, Jefferson City continues to house some of the state's most violent inmates. Yet most of them are allowed freedom within its walls, particularly those prisoners assigned to the so-called honor hall. The three-story stone edifice inside the 40-acre prison complex was built in 1868 and is designated a national landmark. The residents of its 149 two-man cells have their own cell keys and can come and go as they please most of the day. The 7-by-10-foot cells seem more like dorm rooms than cages. They have windows and Spanish-tile floors, and their residents have added personal touches such as welcome mats and pictures. Honor-hall inmates are allowed televisions, radios and fans, all made of clear plastic to keep them from being used to store forbidden items such as alcohol, drugs and weapons. Residents can shower or use the phone most any time during the day.

Outside, inmates cross the prison yard in lines, headed for the cafeteria (where they eat at square metal tables, each with four attached stools) or to one of the prison factories down the hill, where they manufacture state license plates, furniture and clothing.

Bill Herron is Jefferson City's bogeyman. He is the one new guards are warned about. Don't turn your back on him, officer trainers say. Don't trust him. Don't look him in the eye.

Herron is a genius, according to the stories they tell about him. He has no conscience. He may seem nice, but he is only working you. The minute you let your guard down, he'll be gone.

Herron first went to jail in 1968, and he spent the next 17 years earning his reputation.

"I got in trouble because my goddamned grandparents loved me," Herron says. He thinks he had too much freedom growing up in Evansville, Ind. Born July 8, 1946, he was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. "They didn't spank me. They didn't do anything. If I wanted to stay all night at a friend's house, I didn't even ask. I was a fucked-up kid."

He did, however, know better than to pass up an opportunity. One time he found a cow on the road and returned it to its owner, a farmer who rewarded him with $5, remembers Terri Lafenhagen, a childhood friend from Evansville who now writes letters to Herron every day. "Two nights later, he went and stole the cow," Lafenhagen says. The farmer produced another $5 on its return. Herron didn't try the trick again. "That gives you an idea of how his mind works: You can only steal a cow once and get by with it."

Herron grew into a handsome teenager with coal-black hair, dark eyes and a "peaches-and-cream complexion," Lafenhagen remembers. "He was so good-looking."

Herron and Lafenhagen were part of what passed as the rough crowd at Central High School in Evansville. "We were the ones who drank the beer and smoked the cigarettes," Lafenhagen says. "There were no drugs back then."

Herron married, had three sons, divorced and joined the Marines. He lasted a year before a faulty weapon exploded in his face, injuring his right eye (it still shows the damage -- the iris is the shape of a cookie with a bite taken out of it) and earning him an honorable discharge. Herron owned a used-car lot and tended bar before going to work as an assistant credit manager for a bank in Haubstadt, Ind., about 15 miles north of Evansville.

He was drunk the night he and a buddy decided to rob a grocery store. Herron didn't need the money. He had two paychecks totaling $4,050 in his pocket. But he had a gun and a 1965 Bonneville convertible, and he had an impulse.

The resulting police chase ended with Herron's cracking up the car. A judge sentenced him to 10 years in the Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton -- but he wasn't there long. In February 1969, he was taken to an Indianapolis hospital for treatment of a wrist injury. As would become his habit, he ran. He made it all the way to a friend's house in California before he was caught. Herron suspects a phone call home gave him away.

At Indianapolis' Weir Cook Airport, on Herron's return, his guard stepped into a phone booth to make a call. Because of airline regulations, Herron wasn't wearing handcuffs. He claims he simply walked across the street and called a friend to pick him up.

As a wanted man, Herron supported himself hustling cards, craps and pool. Police say he also killed two men. On November 30, 1969, 41-year-old Robert Bussen of Flint Hill, Mo., was killed one day before he was scheduled to testify in a federal narcotics trial. Within an hour of Bussen's death, Lt. Albert H. Musterman, 34, of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department was gunned down during a traffic stop. Police sought Herron for both killings, though they wouldn't find him until February 1970, when he was caught trying to avoid a border check near San Diego.

Authorities brought Herron back to St. Charles, where he remained until his next escape, on April 1, 1970. The jailer reported that Herron used a fake gun made from melted spoons and soap to bluff his release, but Herron says he simply gave the man $200 to open the door and look the other way. Herron crossed the Missouri River into Illinois and used a screwdriver to hotwire a '64 Chevy. Five hours later, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper pulled Herron over in southeast Missouri, near Sikeston. Herron identified himself as Sam Gentry and said he had stolen the car because his own had broken down and he was trying to get to his father, who had been injured in an automobile accident in Cairo, Ill. The female trooper didn't fall for Herron's emotional story; eight officers from St. Charles escorted him back north to face murder charges. The escape added five years to his 10-year sentence.

Herron pleaded guilty to both slayings in March 1971 and received two life sentences. Thirty years later, Herron claims he didn't kill either man, that he pleaded guilty to cover for someone else -- he figured he was going back to jail anyway, but only long enough to plan his next escape.

Three years later, in an inmate swap, prison officials moved Herron to the state prison in Eddyville, Ky. But Herron suffered from headaches, and the authorities in Kentucky allowed him to see a neurologist in Madisonville. On the way back, he pulled a gun on his escort and forced him to drive to Gallatin, Tenn., where Herron shackled the guard and another inmate to a tree with leg irons and handcuffs. (Herron says he bribed this guard to leave a gun on the seat.) On April 11, 1975, he escaped for the fourth time.

Four months later, Herron made the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list. The FBI described him as a "vicious, cunning professional killer," 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. His photo shows a clean-shaven man with wide-set eyes and thick lips.

Herron was captured Oct. 30, 1975, after a high-speed chase in Peoria, Ill. Because he had crossed the state line, he faced federal charges. In February 1976, an Owensboro, Ky., jury deliberated for 30 minutes before convicting him and sentencing him to two life terms for kidnapping. That brought his total to four life sentences plus five years for car theft.

Back to prison he went, returning to Missouri state custody and his new home in Jefferson City, at what was called the Missouri State Penitentiary.

On July 25, 1981, Herron tried another escape. He and his cellmate used two smuggled pistols to force three corrections officers into another cell, then gave the officers chips and sodas to show it was nothing personal. Under Herron's direction, the prisoners took over the cell block and went to work on the bars with an acetylene torch. The plan, Herron says, was to saw their way into the nearby administrative offices and make a run for freedom -- but the torch broke before they could cut the last two bars. After some tense negotiations, Herron and his fellow prisoners gave themselves up.

Herron pleaded guilty to attempted escape and three counts of kidnapping, earning three more life sentences.

Don Wyrick was warden at the time. Observers say that during Wyrick's 25 years at Jefferson City, 10 of which he spent as warden, the prison was a more violent place. But Wyrick also allowed civilians to come into the prison for boxing exhibitions and baseball games and prided himself on the time he spent out of his office, among the prisoners. He says he was in the prison kitchen every Christmas at 4 a.m., tasting the gravy, making sure the holiday dinner was given the proper attention.

Wyrick had an unusual relationship with Bill Herron. "He was a likable fella, and he was an extremely intelligent person," Wyrick recalls.

Wyrick even tapped Herron for help in circumventing the state's bureaucracy. "The hospital needed painting, and the budget didn't much allow for buying paint at that particular time," Wyrick says. Herron swiped paint purchased for other cell buildings and used it to paint the hospital. "I don't give a damn how he got it done," Wyrick says. "I got my hospital painted."

Wyrick has no hard feelings about Herron's escape attempt. "It's your place to try to escape and my job to try to stop you," he figures. "But if you hurt one of my officers, I'll blow your damn head off."

To hear Herron tell it, his last escape just sort of happened. If he'd had a bigger role in organizing it, the plan might have worked better.

Through the window of the Boone County Courthouse in Columbia, where he was making an appearance for one of his civil suits, Herron saw a brand-new powder-blue Lincoln. A paroled ex-cellmate sat in the car, holding a shotgun. "I knew it was unusual," Herron claims. "I don't believe in coincidences."

Herron was flanked by guards as he left the courthouse in leg shackles and cuffs. But when the officers turned right, Herron says, he turned left and walked toward the Lincoln -- and that's when the shotgun came out. "I walked over and got in the car, and we drove away."

They didn't go far. Herron's friend stopped at the Columbia Hilton, where the ostentatious car became a beacon for converging law-enforcement officers. They quickly apprehended Herron's accomplice at the car and then surrounded Herron, who was in a hotel room with a bolt cutter, makeup and hair dye. (Herron's helper now lives in the Jefferson City prison's general population.)

Warden Bill Armontrout ordered Herron to solitary confinement on Dec. 23, 1985. Herron had spent time there before, after the doomed cutting-torch incident. This time, the door stayed shut.

"The way we look at it, he's too dangerous. He threatens staff, and he's a high escape risk," says Tim Kniest, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. Kniest defers other comment to the attorney general's office, which is charged with defending the DOC against Herron's civil lawsuits. The attorney general's office refuses to talk about Herron at all. Yet its lawyers have vigorously fought the lawsuits Herron has filed against the DOC and its employees.

Herron's 16 years in solitary is not a record, says Bonnie Kerness, a prisoners' advocate with the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee. Kerness has spent the last three decades studying the treatment of prisoners, and she knows of at least one inmate who was segregated for more than 20 years. Several Pennsylvania inmates have endured 18, 19 or 20 years. But Herron's ordeal rates nationally. "It's certainly very long, unspeakably long," she says.

Herron's punishment has deprived him of the minimal family contact enjoyed by other inmates. Herron has missed out entirely on the lives of his three sons and three grandchildren. He had no opportunity for final words with his mother or grandmother. His grandmother's death was particularly upsetting -- she had written him a letter telling him she was ill and asking him to call. Officials didn't allow Herron to make any calls before she died.

To cope, Herron retreats to vivid memories of life outside the prison walls: the cherry orchard near his childhood home, his grade-school teachers, the fender of his Chevy, his grandmother's smile. He has filled Lafenhagen's living-room wall with pictures of dragons breathing fire and spreading their wings. (Herron's colored pencils, a perk not allowed in Unit 5C, where inmates are limited to two pencils or two pens, were confiscated a year ago.)

Herron's stint in administrative segregation has far exceeded all other Missouri solitary confinements. In a deposition taken Nov. 2, 1998, Missouri DOC psychologist James Baker said he knew of no one else who had remained in ad seg longer than three years.

DOC policy allows Herron a hearing at least every 90 days. Every 90 days for the past 16 years, three prison employees, including a prison caseworker, a counselor or staff psychologist and a unit manager, have gathered to discuss Herron's case. They meet in the kitchen area down the hall from his cell or simply stand outside his door. The committee looks at his entire file, which includes his escape history, and whether he has had any conduct violations over the previous three months. He seldom has -- though he hasn't had much opportunity to act out during the last 15 years. Between the beginning of 1972 and the end of 1999, Herron received just 12 conduct violations, none for threatening or assaulting anyone.

Sometimes Herron makes a case for himself at his review hearings, citing policies and treatment and explaining how his captors are breaking the law by not letting him out. He quotes DOC policy, saying that without any conduct violations, he should be granted an upgrade in status. He recounts a behavior-modification contract from 1985 in which he agreed to be good for two years in exchange for his release from administrative segregation. Other times, he says nothing and refuses to participate. On the rare occasions when the team doesn't recommend that he stay in administrative segregation, the warden vetoes Herron's return to the prison's general population.

Like many of his fellow inmates, Herron has sued corrections officers, jail administrators, DOC brass, attorneys, judges and anyone else he could think of.

"He was a pretty regular customer in federal court," says former U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard H. Ralston, now a Kansas City attorney. "I think at one time he may have had 20 or 25 lawsuits pending."

As he did with other inmates, Ralston had Herron brought to his courtroom with the prison warden, where they tried to work out a deal. The court didn't have the time to hear all of the inmate cases, and often the inmates could be appeased through a cell change or a little money for their inmate accounts.

Ralston remembers Herron more for the quality of his craftsmanship than for the strength of his legal arguments, though. When Ralston left the federal bench, the Jefferson City Correctional Center's then-warden, Bill Armontrout, gave him a souvenir: a tattered black 1979 business-law book. Herron's name and inmate number are printed neatly on the inside of the cover. Beginning in the chapter covering fraud and deceit, rectangles have been cut from each page, leaving a cavity in the book. Stored there is a nearly perfect replica of a .25-caliber pistol. The facsimile has stained wooden side panels on the handle, a shiny silver barrel, a hammer that cocks and tiny letters imprinted on the side: RAVEN ARMS INC. .25 CAL. MODEL 12 SEMI-AUTOMATIC.

The body is made of soap, the barrel from part of an ink pen. The metal sheen was created by the careful application of foil from cigarette packs.

But these days, Herron's only real weapons are lawsuits. Over the years, he has filed them in both state and federal courts. Perhaps tellingly, Herron has never recanted his guilty pleas in two murders or challenged his other convictions. He has, however, argued for an increase in the stipend allowed inmates for the purchase of necessities such as toothpaste and soap, and he has leveled charges of impropriety against almost every DOC official who has had any role in his supervision.

One civil suit alleging cruel and unusual punishment, which he filed in December 1993, stayed alive until March 1999, when U.S. District Judge Brook Bartlett awarded Herron $1, his attorney's fees and an order that the DOC be more diligent in processing his 90-day reviews and explaining its reasons for keeping him segregated. But Bartlett ruled against Herron on his most important argument, saying that his confinement in ad seg did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment and that the DOC was not being unreasonable in requiring that Herron undergo psychological tests before being released to the prison's general population.

Such defeats take their toll. Herron sometimes stands in the middle of his cell, clenching the judicial response in his hand. He looks right and left and squeezes his jaw shut. "There's nowhere to turn. You have no idea how it hurts. It hurts you physically," he says.

Representing himself, he has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to a summary of the case included in a Missouri attorney general's legal brief, psychological tests were first requested in 1994 by then-DOC director Dora Schriro, who hoped they would help predict Herron's future behavior.

The tests have become the central issue in Herron's fight.

Herron remembers how the idea was presented to him. Officers took him from his cell to a room where two psychologists told him they planned to test him for three days. They asked him to sign a waiver, releasing the results to the DOC.

Herron refused. His continued stubbornness on the issue has become the DOC's excuse for keeping him locked up.

In January 1996, Herron's review committee recommended that he be returned to the general population. The recommendation was overruled by current prison superintendent David Dormire, who wrote: "Wait until the mandate from [the DOC central office] is resolved regarding psychological evaluation." Herron's next review ended in similar fashion, with Dormire's scribbling: "remain ad seg until Bill complies with psych evaluation per director request."

Baker, the DOC staff psychologist, said in a 1998 deposition that he knew of no one else who had been ordered to take a psychological test to get out of ad seg. And Baker testified that inmates rarely can be forced to take tests: "They generally have a right to decline just about any kind of evaluation or assessment, unless they are psychotic, therefore dangerous to themselves and others and incapable of making that decision."

Despite his long tenure in isolation, Herron's mental condition has not deteriorated to that level, Baker said.

Baker's testimony outlined some of isolation's effects on prisoners. "A lot of times, you can have occurrence of anxieties, nightmares, depressions, those kind of things, a sense of isolation. Sometimes it can produce suicidality, sometimes not," Baker testified. "Just like we learned in Vietnam, some people succumbed very quickly. Other people survived the greatest deprivation and came out stronger and didn't have post-traumatic stress. It's very much individualistic."

Former warden Don Wyrick has witnessed the effects of isolation firsthand. "I've seen a lot of guys that was locked up back in the old times. They didn't stay locked up that long and just went buggier than hell," he says.

At least before Baker's deposition three years ago, that hadn't been Herron's fate. "Mr. Herron is unusually, and to me surprisingly, intact," Baker said. (Baker's assessment was echoed by another psychologist who met with Herron for 75 minutes in September 1997.)

The battle between Herron and the DOC has reached a stalemate. After so many years, the state needs a reason to let Herron out of administrative segregation. Herron won't provide that reason.

"He doesn't want to give in," says former nurse Hickman. "He knows they've done him wrong. It's like a game to him."

And Herron still has something to lose. "Right now, he is legendary," Hickman explains. "He has stayed in solitary longer than anyone, much longer.... I'll tell you what: Inmates respect Bill Herron. He's got a lot of yank."

To take the psychological tests now would be to sacrifice that status. When he finally walks across the prison yard as a member of the general population, Herron wants to be able to hold his head high.

But the years in solitary have done their damage -- so much so that Herron might not even be able to make it across that yard. A walk to the visiting area leaves his legs aching for hours afterward. Sometimes corrections officers have to hold him to keep him from falling. Herron's peaches-and-cream skin is now the color of cream gravy; his dark eyes are dilated.

Herron's lone visitor is a Jefferson City nun named Ruth Heaney. Other inmates get to see their family and friends in a room filled with round tables and lined with vending machines. Visitors can't bring homemade food into the prison, so they come with clear plastic purses filled with quarters and chat face-to-face with their loved ones over picnics of vending-machine sandwiches, sodas and candy.

Herron's twice-monthly two-hour visits with Sister Ruth take place a wall away. Shackled at his ankles, Herron is locked in a holding cell the size of a phone booth. Sister Ruth sits on the other side of a window and metal bars. The two talk over a telephone.

Sister Ruth, a Benedictine nun, has been visiting the Jefferson City Correctional Center since 1973. She was 60 years old then, having raised her own family and entered the convent after her husband died. She is nearly 90 now and, like Herron, channels her energy into pushing the DOC to treat its inmates more humanely. Her tactics involve friendly requests and an occasional trip to the prison superintendent. Sister Ruth once had the run of the prison, but new regulations have limited her access over the years, and it has become a bureaucratic struggle just to bring cookies and music to Unit 5C at Christmas. "They don't let me visit one-on-one the way I used to," she says.

Before Sister Ruth's regular sessions with Herron began about five years ago, he had few visitors. His return to social interaction was awkward. "The first time I visited him, he couldn't even look at me," she remembers. Now, she says, "We still don't have a normal conversation.... He just talks, and I listen."

Herron says he now has asthma. His back aches. He has arthritis in his right shoulder. "I doubt if anybody actually understands what long periods of inactivity will do to you," he has said in depositions. "At times I have difficulty unscrewing a cap on a toothpaste tube."

Hickman remembers the physical strain on Herron. Before Hickman left the prison in 1995, Herron "was starting to show signs of wearing out," the nurse says. "His nerves were getting bad. He had stomach troubles, bowel and sinus troubles and headaches."

His isolation from other inmates doesn't shield him from their troubles. Herron's eyes and lungs burn when an unruly 5C inmate has to be subdued with pepper spray and fumes permeate the building's closed ventilation system. He has lost legal documents to the occasional floods caused when neighboring inmates vandalize their own toilets.

Herron has a growing list of advocates who, like Sister Ruth, have rallied to his cause.

They include Wyrick, who sees no justification for long terms of solitary confinement. "It's a maximum-security prison, and it's got 15 guard towers around it. There's no reason for a man to be locked up 12, 15 years," he says. "I wouldn't do a dog that way." The former warden has testified on Herron's behalf at hearings.

Also on board is Peter DeSimone of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, a human-rights advocacy group based in Jefferson City. DeSimone says he understands that the DOC needs tools to control its inmates. But, he says, "it is possible the method of control they have can easily spill into cruelty. I think that is the case here." DeSimone has helped with a petition drive asking Gov. Bob Holden to step in on Herron's behalf.

DeSimone believes it will take such an outside influence if Herron is ever to regularly walk more than three steps without running into the wall of his cell. DeSimone has written letters, made phone calls and met personally with most of the prison officials who have authority over Herron, including Dormire, Lombardi and the new DOC director, Gary Kempker. His appeals have met with indifference from each. "I have seen not one sign of understanding that locking someone up for 16 years is cruel," DeSimone says.

Herron holds the key to his own cell door: He could take the psychological tests. But he fears the results would be used to justify drugging him or to rationalize prolonging another prisoner's stay in ad seg.

"I've been told that if I tell these people how I've survived without cracking up in 5C all these years," Herron says, "they can keep [other inmates] locked up and they can survive. I'm not helping them lock anybody up."