Prison guards didn’t know inmate on bus was being murdered

Accused killer brags: “I guess you never seen that on a bus before”

Two-time convicted killer Casey Pigge sat in the very back of the prison bus on Feb. 1, out of sight of the three state corrections officers sitting up front.

Just two days before Pigge was wrapped in a straitjacket as he pleaded guilty to the February 2016 murder of his cellmate at the Lebanon Correctional Institute, Luther Wade of Springfield.

Pigge’s assault on Wade came after he was convicted of aggravated murder and a host of other charges after he slashed the throat of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, watched her die and then set her apartment on fire.

Yet in the prison bus, which transported 15 prisoners in a loop from Lucasville to Columbus to Ross County, Pigge sat behind the other inmates who were between him and the corrections officers. Despite handcuffs, leg irons and a belly chain, he was able to move about freely at the back section of the bus.

“The fact that he was left alone with access to other inmates is beyond me,” Ross County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt would say a few days later. “I’m completely amazed this was allowed to happen.”

Related: Prosecutor blasts prison officials over inmate death

What happened was preventable, based on eyewitness accounts made by prisoners to the Ohio Highway Patrol and Pigge’s own statements to investigators, as well as the statements from the corrections officers on the bus. All are included in the case file reviewed by this newspaper after a public records request.

About 10 or 15 minutes into the ride, Pigge slipped off his belly chain, moved up three rows and wrapped the three-foot chain against inmate David Johnson’s neck, the witnesses told investigators. Pigge, 29, pulled so hard against the 61-year-old sex offender’s throat that Johnson was lifted off the seat, the witnesses said.

When Johnson went limp, Pigge slammed his head against the bus wall, checked his pulse, choked him face to face and then smothered his mouth and nose until Johnson was dead, other inmates told investigators.

Related: Prison bus killing one of 4 inmate murders in Ohio this year

After the attack, they said, Pigge shook hands with the other inmates, introduced himself as ‘Box Cutter’ and bragged, “This is the first time anyone has ever killed a (expletive) on a bus with his chains on” and “I guess you never seen that on a bus before.”

The murder on the bus raises questions about how the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction transports violent criminals to court appearances, medical appointments and other prisons, which occurs regularly.

The three guards — Ted Hammonds, Grover Riggs and William Saltsman — told investigators they never heard or saw a thing even as witnesses say Pigge banged Johnson’s head against the side of the bus. When unloading the bus, guards thought Johnson had fallen asleep. Troopers didn’t determine that foul play was involved until two hours after the bus was stopped.

By then, Pigge was back on another bus headed to Lucasville. Troopers had to stop that bus to get Pigge and confiscate his clothes and chains as evidence.

‘Global review’

DRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the department finished a “global review” of the transportation policy on Feb. 21 and DRC Director Gary Mohr signed off on changes. Prison officials are still working to put the recommended changes into action, she said.

“The specific details of that review will not be released for reasons of security and public safety. Our internal investigation will be completed once the criminal investigation concludes,” Smith said in a written statement.

Related: Sex, drugs, use of force problems plague women’s prison, report says

But the newspaper’s review of the case file, held by Pickaway County Prosecutor Judy Wolford, shows a number of security lapses on a bus that resembles a school bus but has sliding metal doors that divide it into three caged sections. Guards told investigators they weren’t able to see into the back section because metal doors obscured their view and also made it difficult to see into the second section.

Other problems too revealed by the highway patrol investigation, including:

• Low- and high-security inmates were mixed within the same sections, according to a seating chart, giving violent criminals access to other inmates.

• Pigge was not isolated, even though he was the highest security inmate on the trip and could have been kept in section one — the section nearest the guards — which was left open.

• One inmate said the prisoners weren’t directed where to sit. Pigge took a seat in the very back, furthest away from the guards.

• Riggs, one of the three corrections officers on the bus, said inmate restraints were checked before the prisoners boarded. But Pigge said he took off his chains — an account confirmed by other inmates, according to the patrol’s investigation report.

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Pigge pleaded not guilty to an aggravated murder charge in the death of Johnson, who was serving an eight-year sentence for sexual battery. According to the case file, Pigge told troopers: “I did kill him.”

‘Obviously a mistake’

Defense attorney Steve Larson, who was appointed to represent Pigge, spent 10 years as a magistrate for the Ohio Court of Claims, which considers lawsuits against state agencies. Larson has yet to talk with Pigge about the case but said he expects Johnson’s family or others to file a claim against DRC.

“It is obviously a mistake. Somebody is going to file a claim on that,” Larson said. “Normally, the DRC has good security and watches stuff like this. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time. They transport people all the time.”

After Johnson’s death, fellow inmate Terry K. Steele — who was on the bus — fired off a 12-page handwritten letter to DRC Director Gary Mohr, alleging negligence by the guards.

“They definitely was not doing their job and monitoring us even with a known Hannibal Lecter with us,” according to Steele’s letter, which was included in the prosecutor’s records. Steele complained that he now suffers from panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia.

Related: Prisons’ high cost fuels search for alternatives

Pigge’s background would seem to have warranted careful security. The killing of his ex-girlfriend’s mother had a level of brutality that often results in prosecutors seeking the death penalty. But Ross County prosecutors did not pursue a death sentence after a clinical psychologist determined Pigge to be mentally impaired, making him ineligible for capital punishment, court records show.

In November 2009, he pleaded guilty in that case to aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated arson and other charges and received a 30 years to life in prison.

The killing of Wade came after Pigge tricked his cellmate into wearing a blindfold. He pulled a cinder block out of the cell wall and bashed in Wade’s head with it. He later told investigators he killed Wade, who was committed to prison in March 2015 on an aggravated burglary conviction, because Wade “ran with” the Aryan Brotherhood gang and he feared for his life, Pigge said in videotaped interview that was played during one of his court hearings.

Related: Lebanon most violent prison in Ohio, study finds

“I just want to get it over with,” Pigge said during the Jan. 30, 2017, hearing where he pleaded guilty to Wade’s murder and agreed to a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Two days later, he was on the prison bus with Johnson.

No additional time

It still isn’t clear in which county the attack happened: Franklin, Pickaway or Ross. After one inmate reported seeing a sign “four miles to Circleville” out the window just after the murder, the case landed on Wolford’s desk.

Even if Pigge is convicted, he is already serving life in prison without parole for Wade’s murder. He can’t do any more time than that.

Wolford, though, says Johnson’s family deserves to have the case prosecuted.

Schmidt, the Ross County Prosecutor, said of Pigge: “If it were up to me, he would never be able to unsupervised contact with another human being. Ever.”

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