WILMINGTON, Del. – More than two years after a fatal riot, investigators have found more homemade weapons in a building at Delaware’s maximum-security prison where a guard was killed and other staffers taken hostage.
Delaware State Police Cpl. Roger Cresto testified Tuesday that the weapons were found recently at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and were sent to a forensics lab for DNA testing.
Cresto’s testimony came in the trial of Roman Shankaras, one of 18 inmates who were charged in the February 2017 riot, during which prison guard Steven Floyd was killed. Two other guards were released by inmates after being beaten and tormented. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams burst through a wall with a backhoe and rescued her. Sixteen of the inmates were charged with murder.
Sgt. Richard Bratz, a spokesman for Delaware State Police, and Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for Delaware attorney general, refused to answer questions Tuesday about the discovery of the weapons, which were found more than two years after investigators began executing searches of inmates’ cells following the riot.
Meanwhile, the prosecution’s star witness, a former Baltimore gang member who is serving a life sentence for murder, took the stand Tuesday in Shankaras’ trial.
As he has in the trials of other inmates charged in the riot, Royal Downs testified that in the days leading to the uprising, he and other prisoners were upset about the way they were being treated and discussing a possible protest.
Downs testified that he advocated for a peaceful protest, by having prisoners refuse to come back into the building when their recreation time was over. After he and other inmates couldn’t agree on that strategy, Downs suggested having inmates refuse to come out of their cells.
“It would have been a peaceful protest,” he said, adding that he did not agree with other inmates who instead wanted to overcome guards and take over the building.
“I truly, truly didn’t want to be part of it, no way. I didn’t even want to get caught up in it,” Downs said under prosecution questioning.
Downs said he even wrote a note to Floyd warning him of an impending uprising, and threw it out on the hallway of his cell tier, but fished it back into his cell after it landed in the wrong place so nobody else could see it.
After having his memory refreshed by a prosecutor, Downs testified that he talked to Shankaras and another inmate, Jarreau Ayers, the night before the riot.
Downs said Ayers stayed behind with Shankaras to continue the conversation and later reported to him that Shankaras said inmates were going to seize the building the next day.
Downs admitted that, despite his previous calls for a peaceful protest, he became involved in hostage negotiations after inmates seized the building, taking a walkie-talkie from inmate Dwayne Staats so that he could communicate with law enforcement officials.
“Had I not, things would have gotten a whole lot worser in that building,” Downs said, adding that he was just trying to get “some kind of control.”
“I felt like I stepped up,” Downs said, explaining that he was concerned that inmates were going to get hurt.
Downs, who was first interviewed by investigators on the day the riot ended, met with authorities several more times before pleading guilty to a single count of riot just weeks after he and other inmates were indicted in October 2017. His cell mate, Kelly Gibbs, killed himself in November, days after pleading guilty to rioting, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in March dismissed cases against six other defendants, opting to move forward only against Shankaras, Lawrence Michaels, and Alejandro Rodgriguez-Ortiz.
That decision came after the first two trials against seven inmates resulted in only Staats — who admitted planning the uprising knowing it could become violent — being convicted of murder.
With little physical evidence, and no surveillance camera footage, prosecutors have had to rely heavily on testimony from Downs and other inmates, whose credibility has been successfully attacked by defense attorneys.
Downs was to resume testifying Wednesday.
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