Inmates indicted in murder of correctional officer

Charges filed nearly eight months after prison siege
October 18, 2017

Sixteen inmates were indicted Oct. 16 on murder and other charges in the death of a Smyrna correctional officer, eight months after an inmate siege at the prison in February.

A New Castle County grand jury handed up 18 indictments – 16 for first-degree murder – in connection with the death of Lt. Steven Floyd. Correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson were injured and taken hostage along with prison counselor Patricia May, during a 19-hour standoff when inmates took over a building at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, which started Feb. 1 and ended early Feb. 2 when law enforcement stormed the building.

Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead said, “We will support the criminal justice process as it moves forward and are hopeful justice will be brought to the Floyd family and victims of Feb. 1 and 2.”

Carl Kanefsky, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice, said the 18 men charged are incarcerated in state prisons, where they have been since the standoff ended. Indictments were initially sealed for security reasons involving prisoners at correctional facilities, he said.

Attorney General Matt Denn said the investigation is ongoing, but he offered little comment on the indictments.

“I appreciate the police and prosecutors’ focus on ensuring that justice is done for the victims in this case and their families,” Denn said in a prepared statement.

Details of what happened during the inmate standoff where not released. Floyd's widow filed a lawsuit against the state in April asking for release of her husband's autopsy report detailing how Floyd died. Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said Sandra Floyd still has not received a copy of her husband's autopsy report.

Both Klopp and Gov. John Carney have criticized the time it took to complete the criminal investigation. A final review of security at the Vaughn center commissioned by Carney was completed Sept. 1. At the time, Carney said he was frustrated with the amount of time it had taken to complete the criminal investigation. On Oct. 17, Carney said he hopes the indictments will provide some peace for the Floyd family and other victims.

“As we have said since February, we will remain focused on taking action necessary to improve safety and security inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, and across Delaware's correctional facilities,” he said in a prepared statement.

Klopp said he and correctional officers serving in state prisons are pleased with the indictments.

“It's a step in the right direction,” he said. “This is one of the first steps in the process, and we'll let the judicial system work through the process.”

Sixteen men now face three counts of first-degree murder – one count each for intentional murder, felony murder and recklessly causing the death of a correctional officer. The 16 also face two counts of first-degree assault for each of the correctional officers, four counts of first-degree kidnapping for each of the four employees, one count of riot and one count of second-degree conspiracy – conspiring to commit riot.

The 16 charged are: Jarreau Ayers, 36, of Wilmington, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder; Abednego Baynes, 25, of Wilmington, serving 18 years for second-degree murder; Kevin Berry, 27, of Wilmington, serving 14 years for three counts of first-degree robbery; John Bramble, 28, of Laurel, serving 40 years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, second-degree assault and other weapons charges; Abdul-Haqq El-Qadeer, aka Louis Sierra, 31, of Wilmington, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder; Deric Forney, 28, of Wilmington, serving 11 years for possession of a firearm during commission of a felony, possession of a firearm by a person prohibited and drug charges; Kelly Gibbs, 29, of Wilmington, serving 24 years for second-degree murder; Robert Hernandez, 36, an inmate from New Mexico serving a 16-year sentence for second-degree murder that happened in New Mexico; Janiis Mathis, 25, of Wilmington, serving 15 years for second-degree assault; Lawrence Michaels, 31, of Philadelphia, serving 19 years for first-degree kidnapping, first-degree attempted robbery, possession of a firearm during commission of a felony; Obadiah Miller, 25, of Magnolia, serving 10 years for manslaughter and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony; Jonatan Rodriguez, 25, of Bear, serving 40 years for manslaughter; Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, 27, of Newport, serving 40 years for manslaughter; Roman Shankaras, 30, of Wilmington, serving 7 years for riot and two counts of first-degree robbery; Corey Smith, 32, of Wilmington, serving 14 years for attempted first-degree robbery, second-degree assault and other charges; and Dwayne Staats, 35, of Wilmington, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Two inmates from out-of-state were charged for their roles in kidnapping the four employees, riot and conspirary: Pedro Chairez, 42, from Arizona and serving a 43-year sentence for second-degree murder committed in Arizona, and Royal Downs, 52, from Maryland and serving a life sentence for first-degree murder committed in Maryland.

Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, said Delaware has an agreement with 22 states through the Interstate Corrections Compact, which allows reciprocity to house offenders based on safety of the offender, public safety or at the request of the offender. She said DOC currently houses 20 inmates through the interstate compact.

Delaware Chief Defender Brendan O'Neill said the public defender's office will provide a lawyer for each person charged in the indictment.

“The Office of Defense Services is committed to providing each and every client with competent, conflict-free legal representation,” O'Neill said. “Under our system of justice each of these persons is presumed innocent, and the lawyers in the Office of Defense Services will do their utmost to protect the constitutional rights of their clients.”

If found guilty, the defendants charged with first-degree murder could face life in prison. In a 2016 decision, Delaware Supreme Court found Delaware's death penalty unconstitutional because Delaware law allows a judge, not a unanimous jury, to decide whether a defendant receives a death sentence. The Supreme Court also ruled that aggravating factors must outweigh mitigating factors.

Legislation that would change Delaware law and require a unanimous jury decision in death penalty sentences passed the House of Representatives and was assigned to a Senate committee in May. The bill, the Extreme Crimes Protection Act, will carry over into the 2018 General Assembly. The bill sponsor in the House, Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, said the Senate may consider the bill soon after the legislative session begins in January. Smyk said if the bill passes early in the session, it could be applied to the 16 men charged.