The order barked from speakers in the prison yard: “Stop fighting.”
But two inmates kept attacking a third, Brian C. Cole, who had arrived the day before at Snake River Correctional Institution. Cole, 38, was doubled up on the sidewalk, taking kicks to his head and stomach.
He appeared in mortal danger.
Up in Tower 2, Corrections Officer Jeff Curtis chambered a .223-caliber round into his Ruger Mini-14 rifle, aimed through his scope and sent the bullet slamming into the inmate at Cole’s head.
Details on the Aug. 18 shooting — a rarity in Oregon prisons — are contained in reports recently released to The Oregonian by the state Corrections Department. Until now, the department had disclosed little about the shooting, which occurred in the same yard as the last one, in 2008, and where an inmate was beaten to death in May. On Friday, a guard at Snake River fired a warning shot during an inmate fight in a different yard.
The reports are based on statements from the 47 employees on duty that night and offer just one version of events. The department declined to release reports on what prompted the attack and did not allow The Oregonian to interview either inmate who attacked Cole. Results of other investigations — by the Malheur County district attorney and Oregon State Police, for example — aren’t done yet or are being withheld for now.
Still, the Corrections Department reports offer an uncommon inside look at how employees at the state’s largest prison reacted to an unfolding threat and then rushed to help the inmate who was shot.
Snake River holds 3,000 inmates in three large complexes and a segregation unit on farmland north of Ontario. In summer, the routine splits inmates in Complex II into two shifts for turns after dinner using the outdoor yard’s oval track, weightlifting gear and basketball courts.
The night of the shooting, 188 inmates were in the yard, supervised by three unarmed officers. Two other officers watched from towers, according to the reports.
Just after 8 p.m., both tower officers caught a commotion near the basketball courts.
In Tower Two, Curtis alerted staff on his radio: “Fight” followed quickly by “Fight on the basketball court.” He took to the speaker system, ordering the inmates to stop.
The officers in the yard spotted the fight as well.
“The attackers were unrelenting,” Officer Christopher Hovey reported later.
Their target was Cole, a 175-pound prisoner just 27 days into a life sentence for killing his wife, Heather Mallory, in 2008. Her body was found two years later in a bag in a remote forest, and Cole maintained his innocence through a highly publicized trial this year.
His attackers, according to the reports, were Kevin W. Jackson, 21, a 96-pound inmate sentenced in Deschutes County for assault, and Joel D. Stobbe, 23, a 130-pound inmate in prison five years for robbery in Marion County.
Officer Jordan Bunn, stationed in Tower Four, shouldered his Ruger Mini-14 rifle and watched the attack through his scope. Bunn aimed at Jackson, convinced that the inmate was about to seriously hurt or kill Cole.
“I was about to pull the trigger,” Bunn reported. “Then I heard and saw inmate Jackson get shot somewhere in the torso.”
“I can’t feel my legs”
Curtis fired once, hitting Jackson in the hip, dropping him to the ground.
“I’m shot. I can’t feel my legs,” the wounded inmate said to the first guards to reach him.
Officer Jesse Kelsh used a prison shirt from an inmate to stem the bleeding. Two other officers held Jackson’s head, trying to calm him. One reported that he restrained Jackson “so he did not continue to grab staff with his blood soaked hands.”
Stobbe, the other attacker, lay handcuffed on the ground nearby. “Get him an ambulance,” he yelled, drawing a command to shut up.
By then, the prison was on full alert. All inmates in the yard obeyed orders to drop to the ground where they were. More officers flowed into the yard, setting up a screen around those tending Jackson. Inmates inside were ordered to their cells and locked in. Four nurses from the prison infirmary rushed a gurney and medical gear to the yard as an ambulance was summoned from town.
Soon, Jackson was on his way to the Ontario hospital. When its scanning equipment failed, he was flown to a Boise hospital, where prison guards unhooked his belly chains on the operating table. Eleven days later, he was returned to Snake River, where he and Stobbe are in the segregation unit awaiting a disciplinary hearing. Cole was moved to the state prison in Umatilla. Curtis is back on the job.
“All in all, it went like clockwork,” Jamie Miller, Snake River’s assistant superintendent for security, said in an interview. “It was a very unfortunate circumstance. We do not want to have to use lethal force.”
Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris last week opened a review into whether the shooting was justified. He will also consider criminal charges against Cole’s attackers. Norris has received results of the Oregon State Police investigation, which included interviews with 171 inmates. Like with other reports, officials aren’t releasing the results publicly, citing a need to protect the criminal investigation.
Many questions remain, such as whether the May beating death at Snake River — an incident the Corrections Department didn’t disclose until August — had any influence on guards’ decisions to act quickly to stop the threat against Cole.
After the 2008 shooting, when a tower guard fired at an inmate in a fight between two groups, an internal review found the shooting justified but recommended that in the future, officers involved be held separately until questioned by police and that cameras and sound equipment by upgraded.
Corrections Department officials will launch a similar review into the August shooting once Norris concludes his inquiry. According to agency policy, the review evaluates use of resources, problems encountered and lessons learned, and can recommend changes in policies and practices.