Where's Dora?

Former St. Louis corrections chief Dora Schriro has moved on to a more high-profile controversy

Feb 18, 2004 at 4:00 am
Dora Schriro, erstwhile head of city corrections in St. Louis, is once again in the center of controversy, this time as director of state prisons in Arizona, where inmates recently surrendered after a hostage crisis that lasted fifteen days. She's also facing a legal setback here in St. Louis, where a federal judge has refused to admit sworn testimony from Schriro in a lawsuit brought by an inmate. The judge says Schriro and other corrections officials can't be trusted to tell the truth because they had previously given misleading statements under oath.

In a February 3 ruling denying the city's motion to dismiss the inmate's suit, U.S. District Court Judge Carol Jackson said sworn statements from the defendants suffered from "demonstrated unreliability." In the nine-page ruling, Jackson blasted corrections officials, including Schriro, saying, "[I]t is beyond dispute that the defendants' affidavits contain false statements" and that "some of the defendants chose to play fast and loose with the truth." The judge also ordered Schriro and the other defendants to pay legal fees the inmate incurred seeking evidence that turned up missing in the wake of the prison riot that sparked the lawsuit.

In Arizona, meanwhile, Schriro faces an investigation ordered by state lawmakers to determine whether her response to the recent hostage crisis was appropriate.

Schriro took charge six hours after the longest prison standoff in U.S. history began on January 18, when inmates Steven Coy and Ricky Wassenaar used handmade knives to seize control of the kitchen at Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis near Phoenix and then took over a tower, where they held two guards hostage. One of the guards, Jason Auch, was released after eight days. The other, Lois Fraley, was not freed until the inmates surrendered February 1.

Schriro assumed command even though a state Department of Public Safety SWAT team was in place for about four hours before she arrived, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections. She then directed the state response, which included prolonged negotiations instead of sending in tactical teams. Before the inmates surrendered in exchange for a promise of transfers to out-of-state prisons near their homes, Schriro sent them pizzas, steaks, baked potatoes, cigarettes and beer, while the inmates appear to have handed over small amounts of ammunition and a weapon or two.

Schriro and Governor Janet Napolitano have congratulated themselves and state employees for ending the siege with no blood spilled. Others, including tactical experts who devised a plan they thought would end the standoff without injuring the hostages, have been more critical, particularly since the state revealed that Fraley was raped by Coy during the standoff.

Schriro, who had made it clear there would be no tactical response, also held the media at bay during the crisis, preventing the press from entering the prison grounds and refusing to reveal the names of the inmates. Thus, the corrections director knew, but the public didn't, that Coy, who was serving a 175-year sentence for aggravated assault and rape, had already sexually assaulted a prison kitchen worker before joining his partner in the guard tower.

Most of the police tactical personnel on site at the standoff desperately wanted orders to shoot the inmates. Later, SWAT teams had a plan in place to raid the tower using explosives and high-powered rifles capable of penetrating the structure's bulletproof glass. They believed they could take the tower without injuring the hostages.

"It was disgusting, sickening, to be waiting through twelve-hour shifts and wondering what was going on and knowing what was probably happening to that woman," says one tactical expert who was involved in the standoff.

The Democratic governor has called in national corrections experts and law-enforcement officials to help Schriro's staff review the crisis and decide whether deeper troubles in the prison system, including staffing, pay and training issues, may have played a role. Napolitano (who also was involved in the handling of the hostage situation, according to documents released by her office) has named several review panels, many of whose members are state employees who, in essence, work for her. An umbrella panel that will oversee other reviews consists of the governor's top political appointee, her chief of staff Dennis Burke; former state attorney general Grant Woods, a Republican; and Herb Guenther, Napolitano's director of the Department of Water Resources and a former Democratic state senator.

That's not good enough for state lawmakers, who have yet to confirm Schriro's appointment to her post made by the governor more than eight months ago. The Republican-dominated legislature has asked one of Napolitano's political foes, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, to conduct a review and report back to a bipartisan legislative panel. (Romley, a Republican, has indicated he'll likely run for governor in 2006.) Schriro, who must be confirmed by June, has already clashed with state lawmakers over the state's overcrowded and underfunded corrections system. A special legislative session last fall ended with Republicans pushing through a proposal to privatize some prisons, a plan opposed by Napolitano and Schriro. Last week Romley took control of the criminal investigation from Schriro's department, filing numerous charges against the two inmates. He also is refusing to acknowledge the deal to ship the inmates out of Arizona and into the federal prison system.

Neither Schriro nor Governor Napolitano could be reached for comment at press time.

Even as Schriro was defending her response to the crisis, Judge Jackson was suggesting she can't be trusted to tell the truth.

In his federal lawsuit against Schriro and other corrections officials in St. Louis, Jamar Welch sought a videotape of guards restoring order during a 2002 uprising at the city workhouse in which he suffered a concussion. Welch also wanted copies of reports from guards that detailed their use of force. In depositions, top corrections officials and rank-and-file guards testified under oath that reports had been written, then reviewed by supervisors. In subsequent sworn statements, they changed their stories, saying the reports were never prepared. Corrections officials also swore that the videotape had been lost. Schriro, according to other corrections officials who testified at an October 6 hearing, was the last person to possess the missing videotape.

In a deposition, Schriro said she remembered giving it to her secretary. But her secretary testified in October that she'd never seen the tape. A city investigator who looked into the riot testified that he repeatedly asked Schriro to give him the tape, but she never did, and that she never told him she'd given it to her secretary.

Schriro had been in hot water before. In 2002 she was suspended for two weeks after five inmates escaped from the St. Louis workhouse. After the breakout, investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice found a laundry list of lax security measures at the facility. At least two workhouse uprisings occurred under her watch. Moreover, Welch's lawsuit wasn't the first occasion that a videotape disappeared under a Schriro administration. While she was head of the Missouri Department of Corrections, it happened no fewer than three times. (For more background, see "The Case of the Vanishing Videotape," in the October 8, 2003, issue of the Riverfront Times.)

In her February 3 ruling, Jackson accepted the city's explanation that the videotape had been lost but said she could not determine whether reports had been written. Besides fibbing about the reports, officials also didn't tell the truth about efforts to locate the videotape, wrote Jackson, who noted two corrections employees, contrary to their sworn affidavits, testified that they didn't look for the videotape until after the city received a court order compelling officials to produce the evidence.

Jackson ordered the defendants to reimburse Welch's attorney for his time and expenses in seeking the reports and videotape. Citing "the demonstrated unreliability" of affidavits filed in the course of discovery, the judge also refused to consider affidavits from Schriro and five other corrections officials that had been filed in support of the city's motion to dismiss the case. And without those affidavits, Jackson wrote, the city couldn't make a case for summary judgment. (In her affidavit, Schriro says, among other things, that she didn't violate Welch's constitutional rights, that she never disregarded any risk toward him and that she never acted with "deliberate indifference" toward the staff, their training and their supervision.)

Essentially, the judge said that because corrections officials didn't tell the truth about reports and videotapes, they can't be trusted to tell the truth about other aspects of the case. Kevin Hormuth, Jamar Welch's attorney, says he'll ask that those officials, including Schriro, be prohibited from testifying at trial. If they do, Hormuth says, he'll use the faulty sworn statements to convince jurors that they're not trustworthy. Hormuth estimates his legal bill footed by taxpayers will reach about $9,000.

Michael Hughes, associate city counselor, declined to comment for this story. But in a brief filed shortly after an October hearing in which Jackson scolded assistant city counselor Thomas J. Goeddel for submitting false affidavits, Hughes and Goeddel admitted that the judge's admonishments were deserved.

"The lesson was clearly learned," the two attorneys wrote. "It will not happen again."

Patti Epler is managing editor of the Phoenix New Times, the Riverfront Times' sister paper in Arizona. Robert Nelson, a staff columnist for the Phoenix paper, also contributed to this story. To read coverage from Phoenix, direct your Web browser to www.phoenixnewtimes.com.