LAS VEGAS — This much is certain: Two handcuffed inmates at one of Nevada’s toughest prisons brawled in a hallway, and one ended up dead from several shotgun blasts. The other was declared guilty of murder, even though he never touched a gun.
Prison officials acknowledged the death in November with only a short statement, and for months they never mentioned that a weapon was involved or that it had been fired by a trainee guard. Since then, the mystery of the shooting near the showers in a segregation unit at High Desert State Prison has only deepened.
Now attorneys for both inmates are accusing prison guards of instigating the fight to set up a gladiator-style contest and then trying to cover it up by blaming the surviving prisoner.
Prison officials have been slow to release essential details, and they recently withdrew the murder allegation after disclosing the trainee’s involvement.
The many lingering questions have drawn in elected officials, too, with the attorney general reviewing an investigation and the governor promising to help get to the bottom of the incident.
“The shooting itself is highly disturbing,” Alexis Plunkett, attorney for the surviving inmate, Andrew Arevalo, told The Associated Press. “But it’s really over the top that (prison officials) immediately filed a murder charge against Andrew, who was absolutely the victim in every possible way.”
It all started Nov. 12 deep inside the largest of Nevada’s 22 prison facilities, which houses about a quarter of the state’s 12,700 inmates.
Arevalo, 24, and Carlos Manuel Perez Jr., 28, were both released into the hall and soon were on the floor, kicking at each other with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A Nov. 13 report by the trainee guard describes how he warned the men to stop fighting, fired one blank, issued more warnings and then fired three live rounds down the hall. At that point, he said, he stopped to reload.
“They continued kicking each other even though they were bleeding,” the guard wrote.
Perez died of gunshot wounds to the head, neck, chest and arms. Arevalo suffered similar wounds but survived.
Guards have a history of using gunfire to control the 4,200 inmates at the prison about 45 miles outside Las Vegas.
Records show guards fired 215 shots in a five-year span, including 60 rounds in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. That was nearly twice the total of 124 shots fired by guards during the same period at all the state’s other prisons combined.
The practice continues. State prisons chief Greg Cox reported that several inmates were injured by a guard firing a shotgun to break up a fight Tuesday at Ely State Prison, the state’s maximum-security facility. Most injuries were minor, Cox said.
Attorney Cal Potter, representing Perez’s family in the wrongful-death lawsuit, alleges the High Desert trainee, another guard and a supervising lieutenant created a “gladiator-like scenario” before the shooting. He says they released Arevalo and Perez together into the shower hallway, where prisoners are supposed to walk alone.
By the end of January, prison administrators held a hearing and declared Arevalo responsible for murder, assault and battery. He was sentenced to 18 months in the isolation cell known as “the hole,” according to prison disciplinary forms provided to the AP. The prison administrative process is separate from criminal courts.
Last week, months after Arevalo was put in isolation, prison officials withdrew the murder and assault allegations after objections from his lawyer and repeated questions from the AP.
“A review of the entire incident will result in some of the charges being reduced,” prison Warden Dwight Neven wrote in an April 17 memo to Arevalo’s lawyer. It said the hearing officer’s Jan. 26 disciplinary decision was based on “some evidence,” including the trainee’s report. The memo did not say whether — or what — other evidence was considered.
“New information regarding the facts surrounding the charges” led to the reversal, the corrections department said Thursday in a statement.
Prison records provided by Plunkett show Arevalo’s term in isolation was reduced from 18 months to 120 days. The battery charge is still pending.
Plunkett said she believes her client was blamed for Perez’s death in a botched effort by prison officials to cover up the killing. She maintains that Arevalo did not kill Perez and only fought to defend himself.
Prison officials “never intended to make this shooting public,” Plunkett said. “Andrew never had a gun in his hands. He was handcuffed.”
Prisons officials have said little, citing the ongoing investigation.
The first news release, issued on Nov. 13, reported only that Perez had died. The 78-word announcement made no mention of a shooting or of Arevalo.
Prison officials did not publicly disclose that Perez had been fatally shot by a guard until March 25 — more than four months after the slaying and three weeks after a coroner declared the death a homicide caused by gunshot wounds.
In a March 27 interview, Brian Connett, the state’s deputy prisons chief, said evidence gathered by state police, the coroner and Las Vegas police crime-scene investigators had been turned over to Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
A Laxalt spokeswoman, Patty Cafferata, has said the matter is being reviewed.
The three guards have remained on paid leave. Neither the Nevada Department of Corrections nor the attorney general has made their names public.
While filing the federal lawsuit, Potter called for an investigation by Gov. Brian Sandoval, who sits with Laxalt on the three-member Board of State Prison Commissioners.
The governor told the AP on April 17 — the same day Arevalo’s murder charge was withdrawn — that he planned to get more information from his state prisons chief.
“Of course I’m concerned with what’s going on within the walls of the prison,” Sandoval said, “and I intend to get more details to see exactly what is going on and what the explanation is.”