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'Mass chaos' reigned during fatal NC prison attacks, says one accused killer

“Innocent people were harmed in a breathlessly desperate attempt …,” said Wisezah Buckman


Gavin Off and Amex Alexander
The Charlotte Observer

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — An inmate at the center of October’s deadly escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution said the prison sewing plant where the plan unfolded was always staffed with just one officer.

A single correctional officer was overseeing 33 inmates when four of them tried to break out of the Eastern North Carolina prison. The inmates were armed with scissors and hammers, according to a 911 caller.

In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, police vehicles are seen outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Thomas J. Turney /The Daily Advance via AP)
In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 photo, police vehicles are seen outside Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Thomas J. Turney /The Daily Advance via AP)

Four prison workers were fatally wounded.

“That’s how it always is, every (sic) since I got hired in the sewing plant in March of this year,” wrote Wisezah Buckman, one of four inmates charged with first-degree murder in the assaults. “Sometimes other officers would come and fraternize with the sole sewing plant officer but there was always one officer.”

Buckman’s account corroborates what the Observer learned about staffing inside Pasquotank’s sewing plant on the day of the fatal attacks. Better staffing might have prevented the assaults, experts say.

A previous Observer story revealed that staff shortages in North Carolina’s prisons have reached dangerous levels over the past two years, despite state efforts to attract more officers.

Buckman responded to an Observer letter asking about the attack and about staffing at Pasquotank that day. In his nine-page letter to the Observer, written from Polk Correctional Institution north of Durham, Buckman admitted that he tried to escape, but said, “I am innocent of the latest set of felonies that I have been charged with.”

Buckman wrote that he was sitting at a sewing machine on Oct. 12, joking with another inmate, shortly before an “invitation was extended towards me; which I pondered and considered and concluded that all I want to do is see my children and tell them I love them.”

Soon afterward, he said, “mass chaos” ensued.

“Innocent people were harmed in a breathlessly desperate attempt …,” Buckman wrote.

According to an inmate disciplinary report, inmates Mikel Brady and Seth Frazier assaulted plant manager Veronica Darden at 2:43 p.m.

Brady then passed Buckman a claw hammer, the report states. Then Buckman, Brady and inmate Jonathan Monk attacked correctional officer Justin Smith in a nearby storage room.

In his letter, Buckman said he left the sewing plant via an elevator.

The disciplinary report says the inmates exited the elevator and assaulted maintenance worker Gregory Howe and officer Wendy Shannon at around 3 p.m.

Howe, Shannon, Darden and Smith were all fatally wounded in the attacks.

A minute later, Buckman and Frazier entered the loading dock area with carts filled with tools to help their escape, the disciplinary report states.

“The role that I played … was one of an escort of a dolly (like what you would see at a department store to load bulky supplies),” Buckman wrote.

By the time the inmates reached the first loading dock fence, “a swarm of correctional staff” was behind them, Buckman wrote.

Prison officer Scott Stormer was among them.

In an October interview with the Observer, Stormer said the officers slowly approached the cornered inmates.

That’s when a fight broke out, he said. As Stormer was trying to subdue Monk, another inmate stabbed him in the back – likely with scissors or a screwdriver, he said. An officer struck the inmate with a baton to stop the stabbing.

Stormer was later treated and released from the hospital.

Buckman, according to Stormer, tried to scale the fence but got hung up on razor wire.

He was hanging upside down when Stormer shot pepper spray into his face. Buckman fell and ran a short distance before officers caught and handcuffed him, Stormer said.

In his letter, Buckman said the razor wire was “like teeth of a great white shark.” He said he received more than 50 stitches and about 25 staples to close his lacerations.

All four inmates were caught before leaving prison grounds.

Buckman is serving a 32-year sentence for a 2014 murder in Charlotte. Buckman – who previously worked as a page for the N.C. legislature and governor – pleaded guilty to a June 2014 shooting spree that left one of his co-workers dead and another wounded.

In prison, he had been cited for three infractions prior to Oct. 12.

He said that under his current sentence, his young children will be grown by the time he is scheduled to be released.

It’s unclear how much additional time will be added to his sentence if he is convicted of additional crimes. Prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

State prison leaders, meanwhile, have closed the sewing plant permanently.

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©2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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