Jail Bait

A prisoner was nearly beaten to death behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Was he set up by Sheriff Joe's henchmen?

Jefferson Davis McGee was not the man who raped and killed 8-year-old Elizabeth Byrd.

But on May 28, 2001, McGee was beaten to the brink of death by fellow maximum-security jail inmates who believed he had killed the girl.

The inmates of Madison Street Jail believed McGee was what cons call a "chomo," or child molester, the lowest of the low on the inmate totem pole.

Cons love to beat down chomos. The most violent ones, those in maximum security, generally beat down chomos the hardest.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his staff are well aware of this.

The violent criminals in Pod 3-4-A believed McGee was guilty because Arpaio had spent the days prior to May 28 calling McGee a prime suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Byrd. Detectives brought in McGee for interrogations in the murder, then locked him up for an outstanding warrant on a petty theft charge, a minor misdemeanor of which McGee later was found not guilty.

A week after McGee was assaulted in jail, a different man, Steven Ray Newell, confessed to the rape and murder of Elizabeth Byrd.

By then, McGee, a frail transient who mowed lawns to feed himself, was lying in a county hospital bed with a 14-inch scar running from his solar plexus to his pubic bone. Doctors had opened his gut to survey the massive internal bleeding inside. Amazingly, McGee survived with only the loss of his spleen.

But as McGee was recovering, questions about the beating began to surface.

Knowing that alleged child molesters are almost certain to be assaulted by fellow inmates, why was McGee placed in an open population of some of the county's most violent criminals?

It is Maricopa County Sheriff's Office policy -- and standard procedure in jails nationwide -- to immediately segregate those held on suspicion of molesting or murdering a child.

And how could the beating have gone on for so long? For more than 10 minutes, dozens of prisoners in Pod 3-4-A rotated in and out of McGee's cell. They walked in, beat him until they got tired of beating him, and then let others at him.

Without a single detention officer noticing, according to the sheriff's department.

At the least, the beating demonstrates gross negligence on the part of county jail personnel under the guidance of the sheriff.

But after extensive interviews, reviews, and analysis of jail videotapes and the collection of hundreds of pages of internal jail documents regarding the beating, a more troubling question can be drawn:

Was Jefferson Davis McGee placed in Pod 3-4-A by jail personnel so that he could be assaulted?

Compounding the mystery surrounding McGee's beating are the jail security videotapes of the incident. Tapes obtained by New Times from Arpaio's office differ from tapes given to McGee's attorneys, who are suing the county and jail staff for negligence in McGee's beating. Both the attorney's and sheriff's tapes were obtained through public records requests.

Indeed, a nationally respected forensic video specialist hired by New Times found that both the attorney's video tapes and the sheriff's tapes had been altered from their original forms.

Which is telling, since the attorney's tapes were represented under oath by MCSO attorneys to be unaltered copies of the original security tapes.

It is unclear what the missing segments of tape might have shown. If McGee was indeed handed to the wolves by jail personnel, one critical question remains:

Were orders given that the inmates be allowed to have their way with him?


On the morning of May 23, 2001, Elizabeth Byrd left home and began her walk to school.

She never made it. Later that day, family and law enforcement officials began a frantic search for the little girl.

They found her body shortly after midnight on May 24 in the Arizona Canal. She had been raped and strangled.

Her body was found on county land. The investigation of the crime would fall to Arpaio's deputies.

Ever the media darling, Arpaio was quickly on the scene, getting interviewed. He ordered that a mobile command center be set up near the crime scene. He promised to find the killer quickly.

Instead, his people quickly found Jefferson Davis McGee.

McGee had been a drifter since he dropped out of high school in New Mexico in the 1980s. At the time of the murder, he was living in a tiny trailer not far from the Byrd home. When he wasn't out doing odd jobs for neighborhood residents, he kept mostly to himself.

McGee didn't have a police record. But the year before, he was arrested when officers stopped him as he walked alongside the road carrying a light from a street-hazard sign. Police wound up citing him for theft.

McGee missed his court date on the theft charge, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The day Elizabeth Byrd's body was found, Arpaio and his men snatched McGee off the street for questioning. Apparently, the scraggly man with long hair must have looked like a killer.

The next day, MCSO investigators identified McGee as a suspect in search warrants and other documents. Investigators also obtained multiple court orders for the search and seizure of the contents of McGee's camper. They also took samples of his DNA, hair, fingernails and body fluids.

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