Murder probe begun in death of beaten inmate

Herald Capital Bureau

Frank Valdez

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TALLAHASSEE -- State police believe Frank Valdez, a condemned murderer on Florida's Death Row, was beaten to death by prison guards, and the inquiry has become a murder investigation, sources told The Miami Herald Tuesday.

Valdez, 36, died Saturday after a brawl in ``X-Wing,'' the most restrictive section of Florida's toughest prison, near Starke.

Valdez battled a five-member ``extraction team'' of prison guards -- who were armed with a shield and electrical prod -- as they attempted to remove him from his cell, well-placed sources say. And the guards fought back, leaving broken ribs and boot marks on his body, the Gainesville state attorney says.

With an autopsy showing that Valdez died as a result of the beating, the sources say, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling the Death Row investigation as a murder case.

Neither the agency nor the Department of Corrections would discuss Valdez's death Tuesday evening, although prison authorities released a list of nine correctional officers who were placed on leave with pay during the investigation.

Inquiry turns toward murder

Gainesville prosecutors will meet with FDLE investigators today, as the inquiry turns toward a potential murder charge against one or more guards. The Gainesville-based state attorney covers six counties, including Bradford, where Florida State Prison is located.

``We will discuss the case at length'' with state police, said Spencer Mann, a spokesman for State Attorney Rod Smith.

Valdez, sentenced to death for the 1987 shooting of Fred Griffis, a prison guard at Glades Correctional Institution, had lived on Death Row since 1990.

On Death Row, a violence-prone Valdez resisted efforts by state-appointed attorneys to defend him. The state agency that appeals the death penalty on behalf of condemned prisoners declared it had a conflict of interest because Valdez once stabbed another Death Row inmate the agency is defending.

History of threatening guards

According to an attorney for the Police Benevolent Association, Valdez also threatened guards, earning him a bunk in X-Wing, reserved for convicts who threaten guards or other inmates. The Department of Corrections says Valdez was under ``disciplinary confinement.''

The PBA's lawyer says the disturbance that led to Valdez's death began when a guard was attempting to serve Valdez with papers notifying him that he was getting a disciplinary report for allegedly threatening to kill another guard.

Repeated doses of chemical spray failed to subdue Valdez as guards attempted to remove him from his cell, says Bill Johnson, the PBA's attorney, and Valdez fought back with a pepper-spray grenade the guards tossed in at him.

Valdez was finally removed from his cell, restrained and taken for review by prison doctors, who cleared him to return to his cell. There, under constant watch by guards, he apparently died. The sheriff's office was summoned at 3 p.m. to transport Valdez to a local hospital, where he was declared dead.

Nine officers at Florida State Prison are on leave with pay as the inquiry continues. Tuesday night, the Department of Corrections would release only their first initial and last names: Capt. T. Thornton; Sgts. M. Lucas, C. Brown, A. Lewis, R. Sauls and J.P. Griffis; and Officers D. Beck, D. Stanford and R. Hanson.

Family connection?

The Department of Corrections says it is not known if one of the guards on leave -- J.P. Griffis -- is related to the 40-year-old guard from Glades whom Valdez killed in 1987, Fred Griffis. ``We are internally trying to find out if any relationship exists,'' said C.J. Drake, a spokesman.

The father of Fred Griffis, the officer slain in 1987, was from the Starke area.

But Fred Griffis' stepsister, Carolyn Martin of West Palm Beach, says she does not recognize the name of the guard at Florida State, J.P. Griffis.

``There are cousins up in that area,'' Martin said. ``There are several Griffises up there . . . I know there were some distant cousins with Corrections. That is the biggest employer up there.''

Word that the state is eyeing possible murder charges against the guards troubles her: ``That, to me, would be really upsetting, because Fred was with Corrections. If it couldn't be done the right way, he didn't want any part of it. . . .

``It would be kind of heart-rending to have it go so long and then have it end up that any of the guards would have their lives destroyed,'' she said. ``It would be a sad circumstance if that is what it came down to, when [Valdez] was so close to going out through the letter of the law.''

Herald staff writer Phil Long contributed to this report.

Mike Silva at the Miami Herald

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