Sixty miles south of St. Louis, the low-lying Eastern Diagnostic and Reception Correctional Center sits off bucolic Highway K. Parallel fences of razor wire ring the facilities.
Known as Bonne Terre — pronounced, in typical Missouri fashion, "bon tare" — it's familiar to almost every eastern Missourian in the state penitentiary system, serving both as intake facility for new arrivals bound for other prisons and as long-term home for many violent offenders. Men convicted of writing bad checks and DWIs share premises with convicted murderers.
As with other prisons nationwide, COVID-19 has caused staffing shortages at Bonne Terre; the nearby Farmington and Potosi prisons compete for the same small pool of workers. Sometimes, overworked Bonne Terre staffers find themselves responsible for entire wings, leading to unstable environments.
From the outside, Bonne Terre evokes a sense of calm and stability. With its solid concrete pillars and nonthreatening earth tones, it was designed that way. And yet in recent years the facility, and many other Missouri prisons, has been enveloped by chaos. COVID-19 outbreaks, drug overdoses and violent incidents are commonplace. Making matters worse, the families of victims are increasingly being left in the dark.
The situation came to a head following a string of assaults beginning the first Saturday of February, when a Bonne Terre inmate was stabbed. A melee the next day, February 6, sent another inmate to the hospital. One day later, a high-ranking corrections officer was stabbed. The prison-made knives used in these fights had drop-point-style blades, indistinguishable from traditionally manufactured hunting knives.
But in the aftermath of this bloody weekend, no outsiders could obtain information about what happened. Not the media, not the other inmates — and not the families.
The Missouri Department of Corrections wouldn't release the names of the men stabbed; even the number of assaults committed was in question. A MODOC spokeswoman said there were three — yet prison staffers contacted by the Riverfront Times say there were four.
Information about the stabbed corrections officer was the first to leak out. The officer's name was Doug Montgomery, his son wrote on Facebook, and he was flown to St. Louis to have his injuries treated. He is expected to recover.
But beyond that, mothers, fathers and children related to Bonne Terre prisoners were left wondering: Was my loved one stabbed?
Stifled by MODOC, concerned parents sought information through other channels. On February 10, one of them called me.
She asked to be referenced only by her first name, Victoria. She'd just heard that her incarcerated son was stabbed, and was frantically trying to determine if this was true. (She also asked us not to use her son's name.)
His ex-wife called her, Victoria told me, adding that, "She heard that he'd been stabbed 17 times in the face."
In shock, Victoria called the prison, but couldn't immediately get through. "I finally got ahold of somebody in house one," she said, referencing her son's living area. "He said he'd seen my son two hours ago and he was fine."
But then the story changed: From another source, she learned that her son was sent out for medical treatment.
In fact, I'd heard this rumor too, I told her. A source had sent me a screenshot of texts about the recent stabbings, and one of the messages mentioned her son's name.
"Are you serious?" she said, her voice heavy with despair.
I stressed to her that I couldn't confirm the information, but Victoria sounded like she was on the verge of tears.
"I can't find anything out," she said. "I don't know what to do."
Her son called her almost daily, she went on, though their conversations were usually brief. "I'm fine," he would say. "Don't worry."
His incarceration owed to burglary and theft, but Victoria worried because he was in the same prison as "level fives," inmates who have generally committed violent crimes. "My son is not a level five," she said. "Why he's there we don't even know. He was supposed to get mental-health treatment, but Bonne Terre isn't a treatment facility."
After another fraught 24 hours, I spoke with Victoria again. Someone, she wouldn't say who, told her that two inmates had muscled their way into her son's cell, stabbed him repeatedly and thrown him over a railing. He landed on a concrete floor, and was unresponsive when taken to the hospital.
"They intended to kill him," she said. "He got 18 stitches."
She drove to the prison — hoping to speak to the warden — but he wasn't there because it was Abraham Lincoln's birthday, a state holiday. It wasn't until February 12 — a full week after the stabbings — that Victoria finally spoke to her son. Her fears were confirmed. He had been one of the victims, after all.
"He has more wounds than I thought," she said, noting that he had a punctured lung, as well as a horrific array of stabs to his face, forehead, scalp, chest and back, "around 47 in all." Immediately following the assault, her son "heard bubbling" from his chest, she said.
The fact that he was wearing a heavy coat when he was attacked probably saved his life. He spent two nights in the hospital.
Why didn't the prison contact her? She said she was told by Assistant Warden Jerry Bingham that it was because her son "wasn't near death or dead." (A message left with Bingham was not returned.)
"I'm still mad about the prison not calling me," Victoria said. "They told him they did. They lied."
Victoria lived through a nightmare. But for some parents it's even worse.
After speaking with Victoria, I texted Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, the labor union for Missouri corrections staff. I asked him if this was unusual for an inmate's mother not to be told her son had been hospitalized.
"Well," Cutt replied, "they didn't tell Pat Hewitt anything either. And his son's dead."
Joshua Hewitt was a 43-year-old alcoholic originally from eastern Kansas who'd been in and out of prison for the last twenty years. He'd spent time living on the streets.
In 2012, while residing in southwest Missouri, he touched a minor's breast through clothing, according to a probable cause statement. He was sentenced to time served, and as part of a plea bargain was required to register as a sex offender. In 2021, he failed to do so, resulting in a four-year sentence.
"Honestly, we always felt better when he was incarcerated," his father, Pat Hewitt, tells me. "We knew he had two or three square meals a day, and he had a place to put his head down. We knew exactly where he was at."
Joshua was sent to the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, about 70 miles north of St Louis. Like at Bonne Terre, COVID-19 protocols and staff shortages had made life difficult for staff and inmates there. One Bowling Green inmate complained to me of excessive heat over the summer, while a corrections officer said the prevalence of fentanyl and K2 had turned the prison into "zombie land."
When their son was previously incarcerated in Kansas, Pat and Edie Hewitt say, he frequently wrote them letters. But at Bowling Green, Joshua was far less communicative.
They weren't sure why, and were completely unprepared when they learned the awful news about his death.
What they knew was this: In the early hours of January 9, Joshua was rushed by ambulance from Bowling Green to Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. Two days later, he died.
But that was all they knew. Like Victoria, the Hewitts had an incomplete picture.
Pat had little to go on, other than a MODOC report that Joshua had been in a prison "altercation."
"Altercation" seemed extremely vague to Pat and Edie. Was he in a fight? Was he ambushed? Pat grimly wondered if his son's death had been quick, or if it had been slow.
It wasn't until Pat spoke with a Mid-America Transplant donor advocate that he began to get more details.
The ambulance from Bowling Green carrying Joshua had passed two other hospitals en route to St. Louis, the advocate told him, because Joshua went into cardiac arrest and needed more advanced care.
A Mercy doctor told Pat that his son arrived at the hospital with broken ribs, a broken nose and a "massive head injury."
Pat remains frustrated with MODOC; he still doesn't even know how his son died. "They just flat refuse to give me any kind of information. They wouldn't even tell us the date and the time [of the incident]."
"Did this assault take place at six o'clock and he wasn't found until midnight?" he wonders. "When did he actually become brain dead? We didn't jump in the car and drive across the state of Missouri when we were told he was brain dead. But would it have been different if we'd been told he was just in very bad shape?"
Karen Pojmann, MODOC's spokeswoman, confirmed Joshua Hewitt died January 8 and says he was assaulted, but won't provide more details. "The matter is under investigation," she says. (Pike County Coroner Colton Marti says charges will be filed in Joshua's death.)
"I understand there's an investigation," Pat says. "But I don't see how us knowing 'what time' on 'what day' disrupts the investigation."
The department does not automatically reach out to an inmate's emergency contacts if the illness or injury "is neither serious nor critical," Pojmann continues, defining critical illness as "a severe condition of such nature that death is considered imminent" and a serious illness as "a condition which threatens an offender's life and that may persist for a period of time."
Pat wonders if his son's sex-offender status might have caused the assault. Then again, perhaps it was gang related; there's a rumor that Joshua was a member of the Galloping Gooses, a motorcycle gang. Pat hadn't heard about any sort of gang affiliation, but also wondered if an unpaid debt might have been involved.
"I'm hoping it wasn't," he says. "Because two incarcerations ago I refused to give him any money. I told him that was it."
Amid all of his questions, Pat does believe there was a silver lining to Joshua's death.
"As far as I'm concerned my son saved four people's lives," Pat says. "His heart went to a St. Louis man, his liver to someone in Tennessee. His two kidneys to two other Missourians who'd been waiting on transplants."
Deilo Rogers could really draw.
By second grade Deilo – pronounced Dee-EYE-Low – was bringing home incredible pictures from school. When he drew specific people, his mother, Wanda Parker, could actually recognize them, she tells RFT. He went to Our Lady of Guadalupe grade school and Hazelwood Central High School, where he played basketball.
When he was in his early twenties, his mom says, Rogers made some bad choices. In 2012, when he was 22, he pleaded guilty to robbery, kidnapping and armed criminal action.
After an acquaintance stole his shoes and a television, Rogers went over to the man's house, tied him up and took his stuff back, Parker says, calling the crime "the stupidest thing he ever did."
The acquaintance never showed up to testify. Still, Rogers got fifteen years, likely owing to previous burglary and attempted burglary convictions.
"If we'd gotten a lawyer, maybe he could have gotten probation," Parker says. "I blamed myself."
In prison, Rogers called home almost every day. He made Hallmark-quality cards for his fellow inmates to send to their families on holidays. He earned his GED.
After nine and a half years in prison he was on the cusp of early release, and had big plans. "He wanted a complete change," Parker says. "He wanted to get a job doing tattoos."
In June 2021 he was transferred to Farmington Correctional Center, in anticipation of his scheduled release in August. But only five days later, he passed away.
A prison representative told Parker her son's "heart had given out" and that "he fell."
"I screamed at the top of my lungs," Parker says. "'No, no, no!' I just couldn't believe it."
She breathed into a paper bag, suffering an anxiety attack so severe she had to call 911. (Fortunately EMTs helped get her vitals back to normal, and she didn't need to go to the hospital.)
Forensic pathologist Russell Deidiker found indications of trauma to Rogers' face, but in the autopsy reported the cause of death to be acute fentanyl intoxication.
It wasn't until nine days after his death that Parker finally got to view her son's body. He had two black eyes, a bruise and scratches on the side of his neck. "I automatically knew something wasn't right," she says.
It turns out Parker had further reason to doubt Deidiker; the Farmington-based forensic pathologist had performed two recent controversial autopsies.
Last May, nineteen-year-old Derontae Martin was shot to death in Fredericktown, 90 miles south of St. Louis. Deidiker ruled it suicide, but Martin's family's second autopsy determined the gunshot to have been fired from too far away to have been self-inflicted. Martin, who is Black, died inside the home of James Wade, known for displaying a large Confederate flag and posting extremely racist content on social media.
Also in May, Deidiker ruled that Farmington resident Mikayla Jones had died from an overdose. Adamant that their eighteen-year-old daughter didn't do drugs, Jones' parents arranged a second autopsy. It didn't directly contradict Deideker's findings, but turned up possible evidence of foul play.
And so Delio Rogers' mother turned to veteran St. Louis pathologist Dr. Stephen Godfrey for a second autopsy of her son. Godfrey found vomit "all the way down in his lungs," he tells me.
"[In the first autopsy] they never opened his upper airway to look in," Godfrey goes on. "How they couldn't have seen it, I don't know."
Delio Rogers' actual cause of death was asphyxiation, Godfrey determined, with "external evidence of traumatic facial injuries compatible with assault." The amount of fentanyl Rogers had in his system was "well below toxic levels," Godfrey continued, calling Deidiker's evaluation a "serious error."
The cuts on Rogers' forehead may have been caused by boxing gloves, Godfrey believes, referencing the prison's history of Friday night fights. (These types of boxing matches have been well documented at St. Francois County Jail, which is not run by MODOC but is near Farmington Correctional Center, where Rogers died.)
Parker appreciated Godfrey's help understanding her son's death. But she remains apoplectic about the information vacuum surrounding it. She says she imagines worst-case scenarios "all the time."
"I honestly believe my son was murdered. I believe he was choked to death.
"It has been eight months and I still haven't gotten any answers," she concludes. "I don't have closure."
During Joshua Hewitt's lifetime, his parents debated whether or not to send their son money. Would he spend it at the commissary or on the black market?
Without knowing the facts of Hewitt's death, they can't properly grieve. How can you come to terms, when you don't know what you're coming to terms with?
When Victoria last talked with her son, a week after he'd been attacked, he told her he was being put in the hole "for his own protection." He couldn't elaborate more at the time, he said, adding that he wouldn't be able to call her again for 60 days. As for Victoria, anxiety about her son's well-being continues to eat at her.
Wanda Parker, meanwhile, never got over the shock of her son, Deilo Rogers, being sent to prison in the first place. "He wasn't the type of person to be in jail, to be considered a bad person," she says. Rogers' father died during his son's incarceration, as did two of Rogers' grandparents. For Parker, having her son separated from the family made the losses even more difficult.
Parker wishes she could turn back the hands of time. She says Rogers sometimes comes to her in dreams. He's been trying to tell her something, she believes, though she's not sure what.
"I know he's deceased, but I don't believe it sometimes," she says. "I'm still in denial."
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