Death Row Scam
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Originally published on APB

Killers scam supporters from death row

Stardust Johnson cringed when she saw a photograph of her husband's killer on the Internet, pleading for female pen pals to end his death row boredom. "I looked at the site and felt outrage and pain," said Johnson, whose husband Roy Johnson, a University of Arizona music professor, was abducted, robbed and beaten to death after he attended a concert in Tucson in February 1995. Beau Greene was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. "I felt double the grief because it just picked me up and put me back to the intensity of what he had done, that he should be alive, advertising on the Internet while my husband is dead."

The pen pal site, which said it was "pleased" to present Greene, bears a photo of the condemned killer cuddling a cat. Greene wrote that he was looking for "fun" and wanted women to write to him.

"I really can't believe Roy is gone," Johnson said. "He was the most gentle, kind, soft-spoken person. That this filthy scum should be alive and advertising, saying he's bored and life is dull and holding a fluffy cat was just nauseating."

Site triggers outrage

Greene's Internet personal ad spurred Johnson to lobby on behalf of a bill that includes provisions banning inmates from sending or receiving mail through so-called prisoner pen pal sites in cyberspace. Arizona corrections officials are more edgy about inmate pen pal relationships because of a bizarre caper in 1997 when a woman, who had met her death row husband on the Internet, attempted to break him out of the state's maximum-security prison. The woman and inmate were shot to death. But there are both constitutional and practical questions as to whether the proposed law, if enacted, could even be enforceable.  

Ferreting out Internet mail generated from the Web, separating it from regular mail and monitoring sites for inmate ads would require a full-time team of investigators, corrections officials say.

A call for prisoner isolation

Besides that, the state is under a 1973 court order that forbids it from opening 90 % of inmate mail. And prisoner advocates say it is cruel to keep prisoners isolated from the outside world and cut off any limited human contact they might have. They say prisoners have a right to receive mail, and people have a right to send them letters. Still, family members of murder victims would like to see the bill passed -- even if the measure is mostly symbolic.

Numerous prisoner Web sites

There are numerous Internet sites -- some run by human rights groups, ministers and moneymaking entrepreneurs -- that find pen pals for inmates. One site operated by a Missouri minister even maintains regular communication with a convicted serial killer that she calls "Jack." Type in the words "prison pen pals" or "inmate pen pals" in any search engine and numerous sites will appear. Prison Pen, Cyberspace Inmates, Penn-Pals-Prison Inmate Service Network, Transcend the Walls and Cell Pals are but a few. The sites routinely list personal ads from inmates, including many on death row around the United States. They plead for letters from the outside world to help fill their "lonely" hours. Some are looking for women. Others solicit donations to their defense funds and ask people to send them stamps. Others say they just want to hear from the outside world. Some inmates even have set up Web sites devoted to their cases and to proclaim their innocence. However, no prisoner has direct access to Internet access or e-mail in Arizona. The prisoners place their ads on the pen-pals sites, which collects mail and sends it to the inmate.

Lonely criminals or connivers?

But are these heartfelt ads from imprisoned men and women who crave contact with the outside world, or conniving attempts to reach out to someone that might help them? That depends on whom you talk to. "You can't arbitrarily cut off contact with human beings on the outside," said Tracy Lamourie of the Canadian Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which has a Web site that provides free listings to about 500 death row inmates around the United States. "It doesn't help anybody to have them isolated 24 hours a day and getting more and more angry." Numerous Arizona inmates, including many on death row, place pleas for letters on the site. Lamourie said she has never received complaints from any of the people who write to death row inmates from the list provided on her site. She said that she regularly writes 18 inmates. She also said that by being able to publish letters on Web sites, inmates provide the public with a glimpse into prison conditions.

"I think Arizona should spend their time and effort and taxpayers' money on doing things that actually help the prisoner rehabilitate into a vital part of society when they are released," said Priscilla Pletcher, who says her Prison Pen Pals.Com site lists more than 6,000 prisoners from 6 countries. "Prison has grown into such a horrible big business, and one out of 70 Americans is in prison. I find this shocking, especially since we once were billed as 'the land of the free.'"

Prison suspect scams

But the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has a more suspicious view of the inmates -- especially death row prisoners -- in Cyberspace. "For the most part, it is a scam," said Camilla Strongin, chief spokeswoman for the ADC. "Inmates want to get something from someone. Most of our research on death row inmates reveals that they have a subculture on the outside that support them." The ADC says it has "documented cases" of individuals getting in pen pal relationships with inmates and ending up "mortgaging their homes and maxing out their credit cards." Investigators said that in some cases, women have sent the inmates sexually explicit audio and photographs. Gary Phelps, the chief investigator for the ADC, said he has interviewed women who have placed thousands of dollars into inmate bank accounts or defense funds. Many of these women gravitate to Florence, where the state's 118 death row prisoners are housed. ADC officials admit that while they would like to see some restrictions, they aren't sure how to go about writing a workable state law or even policing if one is passed.  

Woman, lover killed in gunbattle

In July 1997, a woman who had met a death row inmate through an Internet pen pal ad and later married him attempted to break him out of prison -- a plot that ended in death for her and her death row husband. Rebecca Thornton tried to break her husband, killer Floyd Thornton, out of the state's maximum-security prison in Florence as he was tending to an inmate vegetable garden. Wielding an AK-47 assault rifle, Rebecca Thornton was killed in a gunfight with guards. But before she died, she shot and killed her husband. But Donna Hamm, who runs a prisoner advocacy group, blamed the escape attempt on former Gov. Fife Symington, who paraded the condemned men outside in chains to show how tough he was on crime.

'Subculture' of death row

The brazen escape attempt prompted the ADC to focus on what it has called the "subculture" created around death row inmates. The probe detailed how condemned men and their girlfriends keep in contact with one another and sometimes hatch plots for escapes and to smuggle contraband inside the prison. They even used secret "codes" in their letters, investigators said. And the ADC believes women have deposited money into prison bank accounts. "We found out that they are all in Florence and getting together to have coffees and teas," Phelps said.

They are lonely men with murderous hearts. Triple killer Michael E. Correll is a death row Casanova and a self-described lover of "animals and nature" who's apparently getting women he meets on the Internet to help finance his legal defense. Robert Moorman, who killed his mother and chopped up her body, said he wished women would write him to discuss poetry and Star Trek. Angel Medrano, who raped and murdered a pregnant woman, complains of having a shattered heart. Kenneth Laird, who strangled a woman with rope he tightened around her neck with a screwdriver, says he's trapped in a "lonely and scary place" and wants women of any age to write him.

They are 4 of 11 Arizona death row inmates seeking pen pals on the Internet through free ads posted on the Web site of the Canadian Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. They're soliciting letters, they say, to pass time at Arizona State Prison. But in their pleas for love, friendship and compassion, the condemned don't detail the murders they've committed. So what kind of men could women be writing to this Valentine's Day?

The 11 inmates have collectively murdered 15 people in the course of committing such crimes as rape and robbery, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC). One burned the body of a woman he murdered. Another strangled a terrified child who had hidden under a bed. "These guys aren't here because they have done anything positive," said one state corrections official. In addition, many of the condemned have been convicted of assault, weapons charges, drugs, committing fraud and deceit, rioting and theft while in prison. has obtained the 11 inmates' prison disciplinary records which reveal that, collectively, they have been found guilty of 77 major violations of prison rules -- many of which on the outside could have resulted in prison sentences -- and 73 minor violations. The infractions resulted in the inmates either being placed in isolation or losing prison privileges.

Scam or loneliness?

Arizona lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would blast the condemned men from cyberspace by preventing them from receiving mail from such Internet pen pal sites. There are doubts, however, even by the ADC, that such a law would pass constitutional muster. But critics believe some of the pleas for pen pals are nothing more than scams by the inmates, who have time to waste while on death row -- which is a world of violence, sexual deprivation and humiliation. Corrections officials believe that some of the 118 death row inmates -- several so dangerous that guards have them tied face down to a gurney during visits, even with their own lawyers -- are using the Internet to obtain money and attract followers.

"The Web has given them a worldwide market," Gary Phelps, the chief investigator for the ADC, told "It's a game with them, and they openly admit they have nothing to do and want to get something out of everybody."

'An inmate does not have rights'

State Rep. Linda Gray, who co-sponsored a bill that would stop pen pal letters, said she is worried that the growing number of Arizona inmates on the Web is allowing prisoners "contact with vulnerable adults and children." She dismisses complaints the new law would violate the inmates' right to free speech. "To me, an inmate does not have rights," Gray told "They lose those rights when the break the law." But the advocates of pen pal sites say death row inmates like to receive letters because they are locked down most of the day in their cells.

Death row Casanova

In his personal ad on the Canadian coalition's Web site, Correll claims he was wrongly convicted of murder. He says he is seeking "sincere and caring hearts" who wish "to bring the light of day" into his life. Correll has placed several ads on the Internet to garner support for his case. He even provides a Fabio-like picture of himself, showing his muscular body and long hair. His ads have attracted several women followers around the world.

Correll, 40, was sentenced to death in 1984 after being convicted of murdering three people in Phoenix. 1 was strangled; 2 were shot to death. Correll and another man, who reportedly committed suicide just as police were closing in on him, went to a trailer to rob the victims of money and drugs, prosecutors charged. But Arizona corrections officials have a darker view of Correll's motives. He is described in internal ADC documents as being a manipulator of women, managing to get several to fall in love with him through letters. One woman who had a pen pal relationship with Correll later married and divorced him.

Inmate plays on 'fantasies'

Phelps said Correll has managed to use the Internet to persuade some women to contribute thousands of dollars to his defense fund. At least two women moved from their homes in Belgium and England to be near him, investigators said. "He's got a mother and daughter in Virginia, and the mother writes him and says she hopes the daughter doesn't find out," Phelps told Phelps said the condemned killer keeps a "matrix" of all the people he writes to around the world. Phelps said investigators told him that a woman in Colorado sold her condominium and placed $30,000 in Correll's defense fund. However, Phelps stated he has no proof that the money was deposited, but was relying on what the woman told his investigators.

In charge of 'recruiting' suckers

Correll is described as the "resource director" among death row inmates, in charge of "getting a lot of these women" to help the condemned men. Investigators believe that some death row inmates even specialize in escapes. Correll also became the legal "executor" of the estate of a death row inmate who was executed -- an estate of $800,000 that was built up through scams, Phelps stated. The inmate, Jimmie Wayne Jeffers, who was put to death in 1995, made thousands of dollars by getting people on the outside to buy him things and then refusing to pay for them. He then used his brothers on the outside to sell the items and build up his bank account, according to Phelps. "We went into his cell one time, and he had $1,500 in merchandise, including a watch and stamps," Phelps said. But how does Correll do it? Phelps said that Correll told him he snares women by playing into their 'desires and fantasies.' "The way he says it is, 'If I find a person who likes pink elephants, I become an expert on pink elephants,'" Phelps said.

Woman had shrine to murderer

One woman, identified as Anna Duncan, told investigators in 1997 that she met and fell in love with Correll after writing to him through a Web site. The English woman said she even started a defense fund in her homeland in his name. She eventually moved to the United States to visit Correll, according to internal ADC reports. "Her apartment is a literal shrine to Correll," investigators wrote in an Oct. 30, 1997, report. "She has pictures, paintings and drawings of him covering nearly every part of her apartment. There are picture and candle arrangements set up and even a nude picture of him next to her pillow."  Duncan was not accused of any criminal wrongdoing. Duncan's name was, at one time, listed in a flier as the contact person for Correll's defense fund. E-mail sent by to a Web address in England was returned because the address could not be found. Duncan could not be reached for comment.

Correll also has a page on another inmate pen pal Web site -- Cyberspace-Inmates -- in which he pleads his case of innocence and asks people to send donations to the Michael E. Correll Defense Fund, with a blind post office box in Homer, N.Y. E-mail sent to the Web site asking for information on the defense fund was not answered. But Correll wrote that all money goes for attorney and "attendant expenses."

Dispute over old defense fund

A woman who runs an advocacy organization for Arizona inmates told that she stopped heading a defense fund for Correll several years ago after he asked her to transfer $400 left over in the account for his personal use. Donna Hamm, co-founder and director of Middle Ground, said she refused Correll's request because the money was earmarked for legal expenses.  Hamm said about $3,000 to $4,000 was raised, and the leftover money is still sitting in the account. However, despite the problems, Hamm defends the rights of prisoners to place ads on the Internet to solicit mail or money for their defense funds. "I don't think one person has been coerced or involuntarily has given money," Hamm said. "People can determine on their own whether to give money to a death row inmate. It's a personal decision."

Women shelled out $12,000

Internal ADC reports show that another of Correll's girlfriends took out a $12,000 loan to help pay a law firm working on his appeals. And yet another girlfriend told investigators she met him on the Internet. Investors say Correll has used a variety of "schemes with many different women" and has told each "he loved them." A spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office said she believes Correll has collected thousands of dollars in donations through Web sites. She said it was against policy, however, to comment on whether the funds were being investigated.

Threats and harassment by mail

Prison disciplinary records show Correll has had nine incidents of mail violations, including acts of "threats and harassment." Corrections officials did not provide further information on these violations. He has been found guilty of 16 major violations while imprisoned, including disobeying orders, possession and manufacture of drugs, unauthorized contact, taking part or planning in protest demonstrations, deliberately setting a fire, conspiracy and possession of contraband, according to disciplinary records obtained by Correll refused a request for an interview.

Lawyer calls allegations 'absurd'

Brian Dando, who is representing Correll in his federal appeals, said that for years, the ADC has been trying to portray his client as a "jailhouse lothario with his tentacles into women" around the world. "It's a pretty absurd concept," Dando said. Dando said he and another lawyer are being paid by the federal government to handle Correll's appeals, and has no knowledge of any defense fund set up on Correll's behalf. He also said that he finds it difficult to believe that any such defense fund raised $35,000 for his client. But Dando did say that while in prison, Correll married and divorced a woman he met as a pen pal. During an ADC probe into an alleged death row escape plot in 1997, Correll's ex-wife told investigators he writes to people without a sinister motive. She said Correll was simply bored by his situation.

Exactly who are these seemingly gentle men seeking love, companionship or help as they spend lonely days and years awaiting execution on Arizona's death row?

They're convicted killers, liars and con men -- many with histories of extreme violence and gruesome murders -- Arizona Department of Corrections records show. Below are excerpts of the personal ads placed by 10 Arizona death row inmates on the Canadian Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Web site, followed by information provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) detailing the murders for which they were convicted. The disciplinary history of the men in prison is also provided, giving further clues to their personalities and conduct while imprisoned.

ADC records show the men collectively have been found guilty of 150 major and minor violations of prison rules, ranging from assault and weapons charges to using narcotics, selling protection, propositioning female guards and disobeying orders. Inmates found guilty of prison violations are punished by loss of privileges or spend a specified amount of time segregated from the rest of the prison population.

Clinton Spencer - Spencer writes of the "loneliness" of death row and says he hopes to find a friend who can understand and listen to him. He says he is a liberal on most issues and urges readers to write him at a "secret place" where "nobody could evade." Spencer, 41, was sentenced to death after being found guilty of kidnapping a woman, sexually assaulting and stabbing her to death and setting her body on fire. The victim was kidnapped from a Tempe convenience store in 1989. At the time of the murder, Spencer was on probation for felony child abuse. ADC records show Spencer to be a violent inmate, with 52 disciplinary actions filed against him between 1991 and 1998. He has been found guilty of 17 major and 19 minor violations of prison rules, the records show. Major violation charges against Spencer include verbal threatening, disobeying orders, narcotics possession, possession of a manufactured weapon, threatening physical assault, physical assault, threatening with harm, lying to an officer and a pending charge of rioting.

Thomas Paul West - In his Web ad, West writes that he is single, loves "puppy dogs" and is seeking someone to bring a "rainbow of life" to him. He offers peace, love and respect to all. West, 40, was convicted of bludgeoning a man to death outside Tucson on July 12, 1987. According to court records, he beat the man, tied him up, stole items from his home -- and later bragged about the crime to friends. He had prior convictions involving violent crimes. Disciplinary records against West could not be obtained. 

Kenneth Laird - Laird says he is lonely and scared on death row. He says he enjoys country life, loves animals and would like pen pals, preferably women of any age, to write him and send him some stamps. Laird, 24, was convicted of strangling a Phoenix woman by tying a rope around her neck and tightening it by inserting a screwdriver in the knot and twisting. He then bashed in her skull and dumped the victim's body in the desert. Prosecutors said Laird committed the crime because he wanted to steal the woman's pickup truck. He was 17 years old when he committed the crime. In 1994, Laird and several other inmates escaped from the Maricopa County Jail, where he was awaiting sentence. Laird has been convicted of five major prison offenses and four minor  between 1995 and 1999 -- a relatively light disciplinary record in prison compared to other inmates on death row. Major violations include assault with a weapon, threatening with harm and physical assault.  In one case, according to ADC records, Laird cut the forearm of a corrections officer when the guard opened the food trap on Laird's cell door to serve him dinner. Laird had fashioned a weapon out of a toothbrush with a razor blade melted into it, according to the report on the incident.   
Ernest V. Gonzalez - Gonzalez says he likes to read books, write poetry and is "currently incarcerated in Florence, Arizona." He promises to respond "in the utmost pleasure" and wants his pen pals to make each of his days "golden." Gonzalez, 36, broke into a house Feb. 20, 1990, and -- when the couple returned and saw him -- stabbed the husband and wife. The husband died. Gonzalez was on parole at the time of the murder. ADC records show that Gonzalez is a violent and troublesome inmate, having been found guilty of 20 minor and 15 major/violent offenses while imprisoned. He has a record of prison violations that date between 1986 and 1999, according to the ADC. In one case, Gonzalez struck another inmate in the face with his fist while dining.  In another case, a female guard who was romantically involved with Gonzalez was fired after she admitted to putting money in Gonzalez's prison account and giving him other items, the ADC stated. Among the major violations the poetry-reading Gonzalez has been convicted of include threatening the staff, rioting, striking a guard, physical assault, selling protection to another inmate and threatening with harm.   
William Herrera Jr. - Herrera writes that he is fighting for his life and freedom and is so lonely that he gets chills. He also writes he has a shattered heart and soul. He says he knows how it feels to "be without loves, to be crying to heaven to send an angel from above." Herrera, now 31, was involved in an incident in which his son shot and killed a deputy sheriff in Phoenix. Herrera was with his sons drinking beer June 30, 1988, when the shooting occurred. When the deputy sheriff asked Herrera for identification, he refused. An argument ensued, and the sheriff put Herrera into the rear of his patrol car. His two sons struggled with the officer. One of his sons grabbed the deputy's gun and forced him to lie on the ground. Herrera and another of his sons urged the youth to shoot the officer. He did. Herrera has a relatively light disciplinary record, with four major infractions occurring between 1990 and 1996. DOC disciplinary records state that Herrera has been found guilty inside prison of disobeying an order, striking a person, assault with a weapon and threatening with harm. He also has a minor violation involving the sale of a narcotic. In one case, guards said Herrera was found in possession of a razor-edged "shank," a jailhouse term for a knife, fashioned from twisted can lids, according to the ADC. 
Edward L. McCall - He writes that he is a fan of D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. He likes the music of Credence Clearwater Revival and James Taylor, and is interested in astronomy and zoology. He also says that he has spent years studying the financial markets and is ready to offer his advice. McCall, a former Phoenix police officer, was one of three men hired in a contract killing. Police said the co-owner of a printing business wanted the other partner dead so he could take over. On Dec. 31, 1980, the three men entered the victim's Phoenix home, took jewelry, bound and gagged him, his wife and mother-in-law. Each was shot in the head. The business owner and his mother-in-law were killed. McCall, 58, has been relatively quiet on death row, with no serious disciplinary infractions against his record.

Angel Medrano - Medrano says he is lonely and wants to hear from the outside world, saying only he is incarcerated in Arizona. He is on death row for the murder of a pregnant woman. Medrano, 43, obtained a weekend pass from a federal correctional halfway house in January 1987 when he got drunk, drove to a woman's house and then raped and stabbed the victim. Her children found their mother's body lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Medrano had been serving a sentence for car theft at the time of the murder; he also had served time in prison with the husband of the victim. ADC records revealed Medrano has been found guilty of 16 major and eight minor violations of prison rules and conduct between 1982 and 1999. The major violations include extortion, assault with a weapon, unauthorized contact, disrespect toward guards, committing a sexual act and threatening with harm. Medrano has been warned and disciplined in the past for writing letters to female corrections officers. In one case, he wrote a guard, "Do you remember me, I miss you a lot, I love you, can I write you notes, Are you marry," according to the ADC. Some of Medrano's written material to the female guards was considered threatening, according to the ADC. In one case, Medrano grabbed a female officer by the wrist after she had unlocked his handcuffs. In another case, a guard was forced to fire a birdshot-like round from a shotgun in order to break up a fight between Medrano and another inmate. The other inmate was wounded by the shot, corrections officials said.   
Robert Moorman - Moorman writes that he likes Star Trek, talk shows and mysteries, camping, fishing, hunting and hiking. Moorman, 51, murdered his mother while on a special furlough to visit her. While serving a sentence of nine years to life at the Arizona State Prison, Moorman was given a 72-hour "compassionate" furlough to visit with his mother. The two were staying at the Blue Mist Motel in Florence. On Jan. 13, 1984, Moorman bound and gagged his mother and then strangled and stabbed her. Moorman dismembered her body and disposed of the parts in trash bins throughout Florence. ADC disciplinary records reveal Moorman has been found guilty of 5 minor and 2 major violations of prison rules while on death row since 1985. The major violations were for refusing to work and throwing an object. He has minor violations of possession of contraband and disobeying an order. His last infraction occurred in 1991.

Efren Medina - Medina writes that he is desperate for communication from the outside world. He says he wants no "head games" and finds it difficult to make friends on death row. Medina, 25, was sentenced to death after being convicted of beating and knocking a man to the ground and then running him over with his own car, which Medina and another man were stealing. The victim was a former reporter for The Arizona Republic. At the time of the 1993 murder, Medina was awaiting trial for a shooting. On death row, Medina has been found guilty of three minor violations of prison rules and, in once case, disobeying an order.   
Danny Jones - Jones writes that he wants to meet new friends and share their thoughts, ideas and dreams. He says he enjoys reading novels and poetry, and makes his own floral designs and greeting cards. Jones was convicted of killing three people, including a 74-year-old grandmother and a 7-year-old child. Jones, now 35, used a baseball bat to kill a man he was visiting. He then went inside the man's home, attacking and killing the victim's elderly grandmother. Finally, he chased down the 7-year-old girl, hauled her from her hiding spot under a bed and strangled her. Jones then stole a gun collection from the home. ADC records show that during his time on death row Jones has been found guilty of 2 minor and one major violation. His last infraction occurred in 1996, a major violation for drug possession and manufacturing.