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.

Then, investigators found a way to keep McGee in their sights. They booked him into Madison Street Jail at the end of his interrogation on charges of failure to appear on the theft charge.

After that, a curious thing happened.

Although has was clearly the focus of one of the most publicized investigations of one of the most heinous crimes of the year, McGee was placed in the general inmate population.

Clearly, according to the county jail protocol, McGee should have been assigned to a private cell away from other inmates -- in what is called "administrative segregation." The next logical classification was medium security. In fact, jail classification personnel initially ordered him placed in medium security.

But what finally happened was that someone in the sheriff's office changed McGee's classification.


Within hours of McGee's placement in the maximum-security general population on Level 2 of Madison Street Jail, fellow inmates began threatening him.

They had heard he was the lead suspect in the Byrd murder.

Two jail guards were informed by prisoners that McGee was going to be assaulted.

Those guards, one of whom was a supervisor, didn't document the threats or inform jail intelligence personnel. They didn't investigate who made the threats or how inmates found out that McGee was a suspect. Nor did they offer McGee administrative segregation, even though there were now credible threats against him.

They did, however, relocate him to a different cell pod, 3-4-A, where he would be amid maximum-security inmates awaiting trial or sentencing on charges of aggravated assault, armed robbery and murder.

The officers in jail classification later discovered that something had been amiss that day.

Rick Bailey, director for the county jail inmate classification unit, reported his frustration to superiors in a memo obtained by New Times. Bailey bluntly gave the chronology of events that led to McGee's beating and blamed jail intelligence personnel -- particularly Sergeant Janice Mallaburn -- for placing McGee in harm's way.

"At 3:45 p.m. [May 25], Sgt. Janice Mallaburn from Jail Intelligence phoned classification supervisor Lake Goodwin," Bailey wrote. "Sgt. Mallaburn provided information that McGee had just been arrested and that he was an investigative lead in the high-profile homicide of an 8-year-old girl. Sgt. Mallaburn stated [McGee] needed to be housed as a maximum-security inmate.

"Sgt. Mallaburn mentioned that [McGee] had previously been housed as a medium on a prior MCSO booking. Classification supervisor Goodwin questioned the justification of maximum security since the inmate had not been charged with the homicide. The current charges and past criminal history did not support a maximum classification.

"Ms. Goodwin also inquired if the inmate was aware of the homicide investigations. Sgt. Mallaburn advised that McGee was not aware of the investigation.

"Based on Sgt. Mallaburn's insistence," the memo continues, "Ms. Goodwin agreed to house [McGee] as maximum security. Sgt. Mallaburn advised that McGee was not aware of the investigation. Since he was not aware of the investigation, we had no reason to offer placement in Administrative Segregation."

McGee, of course, was aware of the investigation. He had been interrogated for several hours about the murder. Besides, Mallaburn had reported to Goodwin that McGee was a suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Byrd.

"Based upon conflicting information as reported by Sgt. Mallaburn and Lake Goodwin," Bailey wrote, "it appears one of these individuals is not reporting accurate information. Since this incident will probably involve future litigation, I feel it is necessary to establish the true facts on the chain of events culminating in the serious injury to this inmate. Any investigation including polygraphs are recommended and, if warranted, disciplinary action should be considered."

The memo was a bombshell, as well as a courageous act by Bailey -- who could be jeopardizing his career by questioning the conduct of fellow officers in Arpaio's realm.

Two days after Sergeant Mallaburn's call to classification personnel, McGee was near death in his cell.


It is 8:20 p.m. on May 28, 2001. McGee is lying in his bed in his cell. Most of the other maximum-security inmates are out in the commons room watching a basketball game.

A promotional ad for that night's local newscast comes on the television. The anchor says that the sheriff has an "investigative lead" in the murder of Elizabeth Byrd. The suspected killer's name is Jefferson Davis McGee.

At 8:25 p.m., according to the grainy videotapes obtained by New Times, inmates begin to file into McGee's cell. They rhythmically come and go, as if hauling sand bags to a flood wall. The security video captures their actions, but -- according to official statements from the sheriff's office -- security guards saw nothing.

The inmates file in and out of McGee's cell for eight minutes, until a detention officer opens the security door of the pod.

The guard, believed by McGee's attorneys to be Michael Crane (only his legs can be seen in the security video), skirts swiftly along the back wall of the commons area. He is not visible from one of the two security cameras but can be seen from the second. He scurries about 30 feet to a point behind a staircase.

In the investigation report of the beating, deputies note that inmates are standing in the same spot "clearly to avoid being seen by the security cameras."

Oddly, though, investigators make no mention of the fact that their fellow officer had to have seen the inmates parading in to assault McGee.

Crane stops 10 feet before the door to McGee's room. He appears to summon two inmates. The prisoners approach him, and the three talk briefly. Crane then goes back out of the maximum-security pod, again walking quickly along an exterior wall to the door of the commons area.

From the extensive analysis of the security video, it appears that the inmates with whom Crane spoke were the chief instigators of the attack on McGee.

Crane has not yet been deposed by McGee's attorneys.

His deposition clearly will be pivotal in determining if any sheriff's officer could have orchestrated the beating of Jefferson Davis McGee.

Eighteen minutes after the attack began, Crane again enters the cellblock. He is carrying a towel. He walks immediately into McGee's cell.

When interviewed by jail personnel investigating the incident, Crane said he discovered McGee during a routine security walk.

Yet the security video clearly shows this can't be true. Crane is seen entering the cellblock with the towel (presumably to mop up blood from the beating) and walking immediately into McGee's cell.

Three minutes later, McGee is seen limping from his cell and out the door of the cellblock.

Crane later claimed he escorted McGee to the jail's infirmary, though the jail security video shows McGee walking alone to the infirmary.

The nurse there examined McGee and quickly realized his stomach was filling with blood. She called an ambulance. McGee collapsed. He was taken to the county hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery to save his life.

A week later, as McGee tried to recover from the surgery, the real killer was captured. On June 5, a week after the beating, Steven Newell confessed to the kidnapping, rape and murder of Elizabeth Byrd.

When he was released from jail, McGee could barely walk.

A few months later, the theft charges against him were dropped.

Still, although innocent of any crime, he is a ruined man.

McGee still has trouble walking. He is short of breath and exhausted. He can barely do the odd jobs he needs to afford food.

All because he was a scraggly man who lived in a trailer near where a girl was killed.

In the coming months, several more jail personnel will be interviewed by attorneys representing McGee.

The lawyers want to find out who, if anyone, instructed Sergeant Mallaburn and detention officer Crane to feed Jefferson McGee to the wolves.

The key remaining question: Did Arpaio or one of his chief henchmen order the placement of McGee in what they knew would be harm's way?

Even if no more evidence is found that jail personnel intended for McGee to get beaten down, jail personnel clearly showed negligence in their decision to place McGee in a general population of the county's roughest inmates.

Either way, it is another piece of evidence that the sheriff of Maricopa County is not only incompetent, but dangerously out of control.

And, once again, county taxpayers will have to pay in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

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