6 more Pa. prison guards charged with abuse

Ongoing case at Woods Run facility

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Six more guards at Pittsburgh's state prison surrendered Tuesday on charges that they conspired in a wide range of prisoner abuse, including scenarios in which one would act as a lookout while others assaulted inmates in their cells and threatened further harm to keep them quiet.

The charges are the result of a grand jury investigation into the sexual and physical abuse of inmates at State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh and come two months after suspended guard Harry Nicoletti, 60, of Coraopolis, was charged with 92 counts of abusing more than 20 inmates on F block -- the intake pod of the Woods Run lockup.

The graphic allegations against Mr. Nicoletti date to early 2009 and range from threatening inmates with physical or disciplinary actions if they did not provide guards or other inmates with sexual favors, to deliberately contaminating inmate food with bodily fluids.

Mr. Nicoletti has denied the accusations.

Criminal complaints filed Tuesday suggest that he was a kind of ring leader of the guards, who specifically targeted inmates who were incarcerated for child sex crimes or who were homosexual. Charged were: Jerome James Lynch, 35, of the North Side; Tory D. Kelly, 40, of Aliquippa; Brian Thomas Olinger, 32, of Washington, Pa.; Kevin Scott Friess, 31, of Bellevue; Sean Thomas Storey, 26, of Mount Washington; and Bruce Lowther, 33, of West Newton. Crimes levied against them included official oppression, assault, conspiracy witness intimidation and terroristic threats.

All but Mr. Olinger are charged with physically assaulting inmates, although investigators said he knew of the abuse and once urinated on a prisoner's bed and then forced him onto it.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who empaneled the grand jury, said after Mr. Nicoletti's September arrest that he expected as many as 11 more arrests in the case. He offered few new glimpses into his investigation on Tuesday.

"My office and this community cannot tolerate conduct like this from persons in an authority position in this type of institutional setting," Mr. Zappala said in a statement.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sue Bensinger said she could not comment on the new charges, citing the ongoing investigation.

The charges against the guards, all of whom have been suspended without pay, stem largely from the accusations of inmates who testified they were subjected to or witnessed the abuses and were threatened to keep quiet. Attorneys for the guards say their clients are innocent and called their inmate accusers' credibility into question.

"I believe, for the most part, he was doing his job," said attorney Casey D. White of his client, Mr. Friess. "This is a state prison; it's not supposed to be fun for the inmates."

Mr. Friess was charged with 20 counts and Mr. Kelly with 26 counts, more than the others. Inmates told the grand jury that the two often worked in concert with Mr. Nicoletti to attack them, with Mr. Friess usually serving as a lookout. An inmate said Mr. Friess once stood by as Mr. Nicoletti ordered him to stick his head in a toilet, which he then repeatedly flushed. Mr. Friess also grabbed an inmate by the throat after he passed a cigarette to a black prisoner, whom he called a racial slur, the complaint says.

Mr. Kelly would often threaten inmates, according to his criminal complaint, telling one, "If you ever say anything to anyone, I will splatter your blood over the cell." The same prisoner said Mr. Kelly "came to his cell to assault him just about every day."

Mr. Kelly's attorney, David Cercone, said the complaint is "convoluted" and his client is eager to have his accusers cross-examined at a preliminary hearing, which was set for next Wednesday.

All six men were arraigned Tuesday afternoon before District Judge Nathan Firestone, who set straight bonds for Mr. Lowther, Mr. Olinger and Mr. Storey at $25,000, for Mr. Lynch at $50,000, and for Mr. Kelly and Mr. Friess at $100,000. Mr. Olinger, Mr. Storey and Mr. Lowther were later released after posting bond.

Inmates allege similar offenses in a pair of civil rights lawsuits claiming a pattern of abuse. Steve Barth, an attorney representing a former inmate in the lawsuit, said the criminal charges "show the widespread knowledge of what was going on in that jail. ... It wasn't just one rogue guard."

The investigation into abuse at SCI Pittsburgh began in late 2010 and has led to the suspension of eight corrections officers and the firings of four top managers. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which has filed grievances over the suspensions, said in a statement that the six guards charged Tuesday are entitled to due process and "the legal system should be allowed to take its course."


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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