Officer 'bragged' about beating inmates, former guard testifies

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A handful of officers on the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block singled out inmates they viewed as pedophiles, a former guard testified Thursday at the trial of his ex-colleague. But the former guard, Curtis Hoffman, said he didn't see any of the encounters for which Tory Kelly is criminally charged.

The trial of Mr. Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa is likely to end today with closing arguments and then a verdict by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman. The trial, which started Monday, has focused on accusations by four inmates, all convicted of sex crimes, that Mr. Kelly beat or oppressed them.

Mr. Kelly "bragged about his escapades," Mr. Hoffman testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution. "He always talked about fighting. ... The only complaints I heard with reference to him were inmate workers or staff who said they were tired of him bragging about beating up inmates."

Under cross-examination by defense attorney David Cercone, Mr. Hoffman said he never saw Mr. Kelly strike an inmate nor did he recall seeing the defendant interact with any of the four prisoners whose allegations form the basis of the trial.

Mr. Hoffman, who has since left the department, said that Mr. Kelly was not assigned to F Block when the four inmates were there, from early December 2010 through early January 2011. But he indicated that Mr. Kelly dropped in to visit since-fired officer Harry F. Nicoletti.

Mr. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, faces trial next month on 89 counts.

Mr. Hoffman said that Mr. Nicoletti would perform most of the new inmate orientations on F Block. Mr. Nicoletti would "say, 'You look like [a] ... child molester. You'd better tell me or I'm going to go on the computer and find out,' " Mr. Hoffman testified.

Sometimes, he said, Mr. Nicoletti would announce the arrival of an inmate he viewed as a pedophile on the block public address system.

Mr. Hoffman portrayed supervision of F Block as lax.

"It's commonplace for supervisors to approach the block, sign the log book and leave," he said. But within the prison, there was broad knowledge -- though not concern -- about the singling out of sex crime convicts on F Block, he said.

The prosecution then rested. The defense took a few hours to put on its case, which focused on its contention that Mr. Kelly was not in the prison during many of the dates and times that inmates said they were abused.

Some time after the completion of this trial, Mr. Kelly faces a separate trial on five counts related to allegations that he tried to intimidate Mr. Hoffman by showing up at his house in August 2011.

Separately, a former SCI Pittsburgh inmate who testified against Mr. Kelly on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Mr. Kelly and Mr. Nicoletti.

James Arthur Turner, 31, of Crawford County, claimed in the lawsuit that Mr. Nicoletti asked him what his crime was and when told that it was sexual assault punched him in the chest and verbally abused him.

Days later, Mr. Kelly visited his cell and hit him in the temple, kidneys and shoulder, Turner said.

Turner, represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said the incidents constituted excessive force and demanded compensation for his suffering.

Turner's complaint roughly matches his testimony at Mr. Kelly's trial.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman had no immediate comment. The department has fired Mr. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, and Mr. Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa. It has declined to represent Mr. Nicoletti in other similar lawsuits.

"It's unbelievable," said attorney Steve Townsend, who is defending Mr. Nicoletti in the lawsuits against him. "F Block must have been the most dangerous and wildest cell block in Pennsylvania if these inmates are to be believed.

"I hope that they turn the spigot off on these meritless and frivolous lawsuits by the end of 2012."

An officer who was fired but never charged criminally in relation to the F Block allegations won an arbitration award Wednesday ordering his immediate return to work with back pay. Former sergeant John Michaels sometimes ran F Block during the 2 to 10 p.m. shift -- the time when inmates have said they were abused. He was fired because, officials said, he did not report that guards were identifying sex offenders and creating a hostile environment for them.

The Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association backed Mr. Michaels' grievance.

Mr. Michaels told arbitrator Ronald Talarico that the practice of finding out which inmates were sex criminals was authorized by a unit manager, according to the arbitrator's report.

Mr. Talarico wrote that the state didn't provide evidence that Mr. Michaels knew of any abuses nor that there is a policy barring guards from asking inmates about their crimes.

The arbitrator wrote that "the evidence is crystal clear" that Mr. Michaels "did not commit any of the violations" for which he was fired.

neigh_city

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter, @richelord.


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