Rivera v. Lappin (BOP)
On June 20, 2008, at the USP Atwater in Atwater, California, United State Federal Correctional Officer Jose Rivera, in only his 10th month with the United States Bureau of Prisons, was fatally stabbed by two apparently intoxicated inmates: Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero (the assailants) both serving life terms. The US Attorney General=s office is seeking the death penalty against the assailants. Sablan, previously convicted for Murder, Attempted Murder, and Felony Escape, also had a significant disciplinary history: Assaulting with Serious Injury, Fighting, Possessing a Dangerous Weapon, Possessing Drugs and Intoxicants, and Physically Assaulting a Female Correctional Officer. Guerrero, previously convicted for Conspiracy to Commit Armed Bank Robbery, has a history of assaulting staff, including several incidents of serious assault and fighting with inmates.
The lawsuit contends that the Bureau of Prison Administration (Lappin, Smith, et al.) were responsible for the multiple dangerous conditions at USP Atwater which existed at the prison at the time of the murder. These dangerous conditions included, among others:
1. Assignment of the assailants/prisoners to a lower level of custody than warranted by their violent history/known violent propensities.
2. Classification, placement, incarceration and over-all handling of the assailants/prisoners while they were incarcerated at USP Atwater
3. Allowing assailants/prisoners to choose their own cells
4. Allowing prisoners to assert & maintain control
5. Knowledge that assailants were likely to assault and kill decedent Correctional Officer Rivera, other correctional staff and/or other inmates
6. Assailants/prisoners allowed to make & consume intoxicants
7. Deplorable Key Management preventing life saving response by other staff
8. Deplorable intake procedures of assailants/prisoners
9. Indifference to dangerous and violent propensities of the prisoner population
10. Indifference in maintaining a seriously undermanned custody work force
11. Glaring deficiencies and repugnant state of prison management and security controls
12. Indifference to general ease at which prisoners manufacture & maintain weapons
13. Indifference by failing to arm correctional officers (i.e., no pepper spray, batons, TASER guns)
14. Indifference at decreasing staffing levels
15. Refusal to issue a stab resistant vest and/or other protective equipment
16. Indifference to effect of exploding inmate population on staff and local communities
Correctional Officer Rivera was subjected to these dangerous conditions, (and others), and yet the responsible individuals acted with deliberate indifference by failing and refusing to protect him. AThe Rivera family wants to know why these two inmates were where they were at the time of the murder. That’s a good question. It appears that Guerrero was a ‘disciplinary transfer’. He had been in lock down at his previous prison; so why wasn’t he immediately placed into lock down when he came to Atwater instead of being released into general population?” continued Peacock. AIt appears obvious that the inmates had taken control of the prison system. “Worse yet, the site Unit Manager, Marie Orozco, who is apparently in charge of prisoner placement at Atwater, predicted just such an attack,” said Peacock. AWell, tragically, her prediction proved to be accurate.” After suggesting that inmate Guerrero should be placed in Secure Housing Unit (lock down), Ms. Orozco was overruled by one Lt. Jesse Estrada and Guerrero was placed in general population. Upon hearing that Guerrero was to be placed in general population with Sablan, Orozco stated that they were ‘going to put him with another killer,’ and, she predicted, ‘Okay if that is what you are going to do. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end up killing somebody before the night is out.’ Within 24 hours of these grossly regrettable decisions, Officer Jose Rivera was dead. He had no idea of the bear trap that had been set for him by the Bureau of Prisons. They gave him no warning, no equipment to safeguard himself, and no weaponry with which defend himself. Nothing. If he had had a simple canister of pepper spray he would have been able to have a fighting chance to save himself. The Bureau hadn’t even given him that. He used the only weapon he had: his head. He head-butted one of his attackers. That was all he had against two inmates who were fully armed,” said Peacock. AIt is unbelievable that they would allow our correctional officer to work in such a violent environment with no back-up, no safety equipment and no weaponry. Absolutely unbelievable. Shame on anyone responsible for failing Officer Rivera in that way.”
“As the Warden, Dennis Smith should have done everything within his control to ensure the safety of the brave correctional officers who worked the beat at Atwater. This appears not to have occurred. As a result, he failed in his duty to provide for the safe keeping of his officer staff, and in particular Officer Rivera,” said Peacock. AHe is accountable for the breakdown which allowed well-documented violent inmates into general population, which further compounded an already unsafe situation. The Bureau of Prisons Administration participated in the creation of the dangerous environment in which Officer Rivera worked, and were indifferent in subjecting him to this dangerous environment. This was a totally unnecessary and tragic murder which could have, and should have, been avoided. These individuals dishonored the correctional staff, and this dishonor contributed to the death of Officer Rivera.”
Officer Rivera suffered 28 sharp-force injuries. Cause of death was determined to be two puncture wounds to the left chest which penetrated the heart muscle. AThe reality is that if Officer Rivera had been wearing a stab-resistant vest he could very well be alive today. Shame on anyone in the Bureau of Prisons who has prevented the officers, Officer Rivera in particular, from getting a vest. How many more officers must be killed or maimed before something is done,” said Mark Peacock.
It is the Rivera family’s hope and aim that this lawsuit will help effect change within the Federal Bureau of Prisons so that no other family will suffer the loss of a loved one as they have had to suffer. To that extent, a website has been set up to help bring about necessary changes and bring awareness to the grave dangers our brave correctional officers face on our behalf everyday (www.officerjoserivera.com). It is also the Rivera family’s hope that their beloved Jose never be forgotten, and that his death be not in vain.
For more detailed information on the Rivera tragedy, please feel free to download & review the following documents (to download simply double click the highlighted links below):
1. April 17, 2009 report issued by the Department of Justice/Federal Bureau of Prisons Board of Inquiry Report entitled, AJune 20, 2008, Homicide of Correctional Officer Jose Rivera United State penitentiary, Atwater, California;
2. FBI investigative document (302) – interviews with Marie Orozco & Lt. Jesse Estrada;
3. Federal Tort Claim (Rivera Family);
RIVERA FEDERAL TORT CLAIM
4. Letters to all United States Senators; and
5. Letters to Pres. Barack Obama & cabinet (Vice Pres. Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Attorney General Eric Holder)
6. Rivera v. Lappin Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit
Rivera Civil Rights Law Suit 1:09-CV-00954-LJO-SMS
Please note that additional documents can/will be available for downloading as they become available.
Visit the group “Correctional Officer Jose Rivera – R.I.P.” on Facebook
Law Offices of Mark Peacock – specializes in representing safety (law enforcement, corrections, fire) in civil matters.