Native Sun News: Prison guards watched as Indian inmate died

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Tony Lester

Indian inmate bled to death while officers filmed it
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer

TUCSON— An enrolled member of the Salt River Pima tribe, with ties to the Ft Peck Indian reservation was allowed to commit suicide while in the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections. Instead of rendering aid to Tony Lester, prison staff filmed him dying for 23 minutes.

The prison system in the United States is a conglomerate of federal, state, and private bureaucratic empires which exert a tremendous amount of influence on our Nation’s economy, laws, and unfortunately legislators. It is estimated that the prison industry in the United States is a $35 billion industry annually. However Wendy Halloran of Channel 12 news in Phoenix, and one Native American family have decided to take this modern day Goliath to task over the suicide of Tony Lester and the failure of the Arizona DOC to come to his aid. Recently the family filed a wrongful death suit against the Arizona DOC for $3 million.

“It isn’t about the money it is about letting people know that what happened to Tony is was wrong and it cannot be allowed to ever happen again,” said Patti Jones the aunt of Lester. “We thought he would be in a place where he would receive proper medical care and they didn’t give it to him,” she added. Ms. Jones is from the Fort Peck Indian reservation in Montana.

In 2010 Tony Lester was sentenced to a 12 year prison sentence for aggravated assault and ordered to carry out his sentence at the Arizona DOC’s facility in Tucson. Shortly after arriving at the prison Tony, who was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was informed by spokesman for the Native American inmate population at the prison that because of the nature of his charges he was not welcome amongst the general population. Common practice on many prison yards in the United States is to exclude those with crimes against children, or crimes of a sexual nature. In recent years however those who have been convicted of domestic violence crimes in AZ are also being denied the opportunity integrate with the general population. Tony Lester’s crime was of a domestic nature and thus he was told to leave the yard.

“It is a new phenomenon for the Native American population in the prisons to push domestic violence offenders off the prison yard,” said Margaret Plews, editor of Arizona Prison Watch. “In the past it had always been the guys who committed sexual assaults, but this is entirely new and out of the ordinary,” added Plews.

After requesting to be placed in protective custody Tony Lester was moved in to the detention section of the prison where he would spend the final hours of his life.

While in his detention cell, where every item going in and coming out is monitored and logged Lester acquired several razors that he proceeded to use to slash his wrists, neck, and groin. In this particular section of the prison razors are contraband and exactly how the razors entered the cell is currently a point of contention between the family and prison officials.

While on a routine walk through of the area where Lester was held officer Barcello a relative newcomer to the facility was alerted by a pounding coming from the cell inhabited by Lester and another inmate. After arriving at the cell he saw that that Lester’s bunk and sheets were covered with blood. “He was covered and the first thing I noticed was the blood on his sheets,” said Officer Barcello in a recorded interview with investigators.

The officer proceeded to call for backup, a supervisor, and a camera so that the situation could be recorded. The supervising officer responded within seconds of officer Barcello’s request, she brought with her a camera and the officers present began filming Tony Lester while he continued to bleed and moan on top of his bunk.

“I told Sargent Predroza to call an ambulance now,” Barcello told investigators.

The video which lasts for 23 minutes shows officers milling around, calling Lester’s name and conversing with one another about the situation in front of them. What the officers did not do however was take steps to stop the bleeding, administer first aid, or attempt to physically help the inmate who lay dying right before their eyes in any way. Tony Lester would later die from the wounds that he inflicted on himself.

The question brought before the court however was whether or not the officers and the Arizona DOC could be held responsible for his death.

In the wrongful death suit that the family has brought against the DOC they allege that the officers contributed to the death of Tony Lester by not providing first aid or immediate care to him as he bled out in front of them, that Lester should have been placed in a special prison facility that housed the mentally handicap, that he did not receive proper treatment or medication while incarcerated, and that the Arizona DOC contributed to his death by providing him with the razors he used to kill himself with.

The state responded by asking the court to issue an immediate judgment on all four allegations brought forth by the family. The judge ruled in favor of the state on the first charge and came to the conclusion that the officers had done everything they could have done when responding to the scene.

“The point is we recognize that time in those situations can be crucial but not when somebody is so far gone. There was nothing that could have been done to save the man and they (the officers) did everything they could,” said David Cantelme attorney for the Arizona DOC to Native Sun News in an interview.

The state contended that the officers followed protocol by filming and not providing first aid and could not be held liable for the Lester’s death. The reasons given to Native Sun News by Cantelme was that the officers did not have the proper protection from the massive amounts of blood in the cell, they followed protocol by placing their safety first because they could not see Lester’s hands, and that by the time they had found Lester he had lost far too much blood to be saved.

“It is important that your readers know that Judge Talamante ruled that our officers were not responsible for Tony Lester’s death,” said Cantelme. “It was ruled that the response of the officers was appropriate because of officer safety as judged by experts. There is no evidence indicating the officers caused, contributed or could have saved his life. It was just too late by the time they got there. The plaintiffs conceited this point,” he added.

Although the judge ruled in favor of the state on the allegation that the individual responding officers were not responsible for Lester dying, the tape and the testimony of officers show that Lester was breathing, conscious, and still moving when they arrived.

“He was breathing,” said Officer Pope to investigators. “I had first aid but I do not consider if first aid training. I go to first aid training once a year and they just go over the basics,” he added.

Late last week Judge Telamante declined the states motion for summary judgment on the final three points raised by the family of Lester which allows for their case against the state to move forward.

The family of Lester provided a document to NSN showing that a Judge named Steven K. Holding ordered that Lester be placed in a facility where he could receive necessary care, medication, and monitoring to treat his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

“The judge ordered that he take his medications, that he be placed in a medical facility, and that he would be monitored for his conditions,” said Patti Jones. “Tony asked me to get power of attorney to make sure he took his medicine and I did. He didn’t like being off his medication and didn’t like losing control to the voices he heard,” she added.

The state contends however that judges do not have the authority to overrule the decisions made by doctors. They claim that Lester was properly screened and the facility where he was placed had the ability to monitor and treat his disease, but whether or not the state did actually fulfill their responsibilities will be determined by a judge in Arizona.

The final charge before the court is determining how Tony Lester acquired the razors he used to kill himself. His cellmate asserts that the razors were given to Lester by the officer working the range of cells where he was being housed.

“The duty officer gave it to him,” said inmate Molina to investigators. “I scene it when the transactions went down,” he told investigators.

The state disputes the statement by Molina, and Cantelme told NSN that there is no possible way that this could be true because razors are contraband in that part of the prison.

“Tony had always wanted to make a difference, hopefully what happened to him will help someone else,” said Patti Jones.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

*Native Sun News would like to give credit to the work of Wendy Halloran of Channel 12 news in Phoenix. Although we were able to review all the documents related to this story for ourselves, if it was not for her tireless work bringing this information to the public this story would not have been possible.

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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