In August 2006, in the enclosed Z Unit of High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, Officer Scott Jones, a correctional peace officer assigned to Search and Escort, joined in a hazing ritual known as the “Usual High Desert.” Sergeant Ernie Rausch had just received a promotion. To celebrate, Jones and several officers put the 6’7″ 280-pound Rausch into a “cage” — one of the phone booth-sized stand-alone units used to contain unruly inmates — and doused him with trashcans full of water. Officer Steve Oschner was there and later described the scene as part of a workers’ compensation claim investigation: “You put up a little bit of a struggle, you know. Then obviously it is in good fun and put him in the cage, got him wet. Poured some water on him.”
According to the workers’ comp investigation, Rausch’s tormenters headed off for dinner, with Rausch in the cage and water pooling on the floor. After a few moments, while some guys were getting squeegees to clean up, Rausch got out and was soon face-to-face with Jones. Compared to Rausch’s massive size, Jones was a mere 6’1″ and 180 pounds. According to the workers’ comp investigation, Rausch extended a hand, as if to shake, but when Jones reached out to reciprocate, Rausch pulled him close and began dry-humping Jones’ leg. Rausch’s weight was too much for Jones, and they both tumbled to the ground in one tangled wet mess. A few yards away in the Z Unit’s law library where officers typically eat their meals, an officer claimed to hear Jones scream as he hit the wet concrete floor.
Jones tore two ligaments in his knee. His actual workers’ compensation claim from the incident states that he slipped and fell while mopping the floor. Rausch, who was later questioned as part of Jones’ claim, said that he and Jones were “hugging each other goodbye” some sixty feet away from the cage when both of them slipped and fell. “There wasn’t a mop in his hand,” Rausch said. “There wasn’t a mop in my hand. We had just got done with those activities.” But when pressed for details on the altercation, Rausch said, “It was wrestling. It is what we do for a living.”
It’s unclear from the workers’ comp investigation to what extent the highest-ranking officer present, Second Watch Sergeant (now Lieutenant) Ed Simmerson, was involved in Rausch’s hazing or responding to Jones’ injury. He failed to file a report on the incident. “You ain’t supposed to do it,” he later admitted to a workers’ comp investigator about hazing. “But it is kind of overlooked.” What Simmerson did do, according to a civil complaint, was instruct Jones to fill out the injury report with the claim that he hurt himself while mopping. Jones’ father-in-law, Robert Hartner, himself a former High Desert CO, testified that Simmerson told Jones, “You need to write it this way,” meaning fill out the workers’ comp form in a way that would not implicate any other officers. Jones wanted to get along. So he signed it. (Simmerson did not respond to requests for comment.)
For four years, Jones — “Jonesy” to his pals — had been happy at High Desert. He was an exemplary worker with no complaints. Handsome, with neatly close-cropped hair and a slightly goofy grin, he was known as a quiet guy who kept his head down and didn’t fuck around. But the encounter with Rausch and the falsified workers’ comp claim seems to have upended Jones’ work life. According to people who knew Jones well, over the next five years, some of his fellow officers, suspicious that Jones might turn on them, launched a series of cruel and anonymous attacks. To Jones and his family, it seemed like a unified effort aimed at his mental health as much as his physical wellbeing.
In July of 2011, Jones drove his truck to a secluded spot outside of town and shot himself in the head with his pistol. He was one of at least five known correctional officer suicides at High Desert since 2008. Of course, COs everywhere experience massive amounts of on-the-job stress. A 2009 study found that they have a suicide rate higher than any other type of law enforcement, and those working in high-security institutions like High Desert experience levels of violence that can lead to incidences of PTSD on par with combat veterans. But, in at least some of these cases of suicide, the victims’ families claim that abuse from other High Desert COs compounded the obvious strains associated with working at a maximum-security prison.
Jones’ wife, Janelle, has sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the former warden of High Desert, alleging that her husband was harassed for reporting misconduct until he became so depressed that he took his own life. Janelle, now raising their teenage son alone, still lives in Susanville and sees her dead husband’s old co-workers often. “I don’t care what they say,” she says. “What I know is that Scott went in fine and he came out dead.”
High Desert is isolated even by prison standards. The surrounding town of Susanville, CA is situated in an arid valley 90 minutes northwest of Reno, where the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains meet the Great Basin desert. Signs for Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonalds stretch towards the open sky alongside ranchers roping cattle in clouds of dust. For years, this was a struggling logging and mining town; Main Street still features Old West storefronts and the local book store is full of old self-published titles on finding gold. There are two Mormon churches and a modern-looking pub that brews its own beer. On the side of the highway, five minutes from downtown, is the area’s major attraction: the Diamond Mountain Casino & Hotel.
The subject of the 2007 documentary Prison Town, USA, Susanville is also home to not one, but two major state prisons: High Desert and California Correctional Center (colloquially called “The Camp”). Unsurprisingly, the majority of the town’s population works or is otherwise affiliated with the prison system. In a town of about 15,000 people — as many as half of them are inmates and three-quarters are male.
High Desert, which opened in 1995, is by far the tougher of the two facilities. Designed to hold 3,336 high- and medium-security inmates, it is sometimes referred to on prison message boards as “High DRAMA State Prison.” In 2010, the Sacramento Bee wrote a two-part feature on extreme cruelty at High Desert, which found a “behavior modification” program full of brutalities like hours-long strip searches in the snow, cell doors covered in excrement and severe beatings from officers. Allegations of racist slurs were also common and authorities were generally suspected of sweeping incriminating evidence under the rug. A former inmate told the Sacramento Bee that it resembled a “concentration camp.” (One CO I spoke with described this investigation as “totally overblown.”)
Before landing a job at High Desert in 2002, Jones, then 27, worked in the produce department at Susanville Supermarket. His son Tyler had been born a year before and his future wife Janelle, though only 22 years old, had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The prison promised better pay and benefits. Though a CO’s starting salary is in the mid-five-figures, incomes can quickly climb to well over $100,000 with overtime. (One officer told me that he made “at least” $120,000 to $140,000 a year at High Desert.) CDCR, which employes 30,000 officers to watch over 130,000 inmates, also provides full medical coverage and a guaranteed retirement fund.
Jones enrolled in the 16-week-course at the Richard A. McGee Correctional Training Center in Galt, where cadets learn everything from prison policy guidelines to the use of batons, pepper spray and hand-to-hand submission techniques. According to a CDCR spokesperson, “suicide prevention is part of the training all cadets receive at the academy” as well. Graduates are required to pass written, physical and oral exams. Other COs told me that most cadets easily pass these tests, which include an in-person interview and a psychological evaluation. One retired CO told me, “They just wanted warm bodies.”
Jones reported for duty at High Desert in July 2002. Many of the COs there pride themselves on not taking shit from some of the state’s toughest inmates. Officers I spoke with described a process they called “flushing,” wherein other maximum-security prisons like Corcoran and Pelican Bay transport their worst cases to High Desert. The COs repeatedly emphasized that High Desert was rampant with rapists, pedophiles, killers and other generally undesirable characters. According to one CO, a number of new recruits leave the academy planning to “treat inmates like animals.” But another CO observed that, in practice, “these young people don’t know the kind of force you can use.” The inmates that come to High Desert, he said, “they know they are going to a prison and will be treated like prisoners.”
In 2006, Jones was assigned to a four-person shift in the Z Unit, a high-security administrative segregation (Ad-Seg) holding around 200 high-ranking gang leaders, or “shot callers.” These were the most severe cases in a prison already full of the worst of the worst. Inmates were housed in solitary confinement cells — each about as big as a parking space — behind grated doors, with only a concrete bunk, a metal toilet and a sink in each cell, and allowed out to exercise for one hour a day in an adjacent high-walled dog run. Jesse Barron, a CO who worked with Jones in the Z Unit, says, “Working in the Ad-Seg units is not like working the [general population].” These were inmates who refused to “program.” According to Barron, programming means “not wanting to stab another human being, not wanting to constantly bring in drugs or rape other inmates.” Barron told me he saw an inmate hoist up his cellie “like a hammock,” use him for sex, and kill him; another young inmate got a prison tattoo of a naked woman on his back for the viewing pleasure of his rapists.
Due to the inherent stress of working in high-security segregation units, the CDCR limits COs to two-year stints in Ad-Seg. (The average stay for inmates is currently around 120 days.) But, I was told officers can stay longer in Z Unit, either because they enjoy the intensity of the work or because they want to work with their buddies, or both. Jones worked in Ad-Seg for about a year before his injury, and then for two years after. It was an atmosphere that could prove severe for inmates and officers alike. Officer Anthony Tirado, who worked with Jones, found Z Unit so stressful that, as he told an investigator in an interview, he “didn’t even want to come to work anymore.”
After his knee injury, Jones took a few months off and returned to Z Unit in February 2007. According to the complaint, he was in severe pain and still concerned about falsifying the workers’ compensation form, but determined to make the best of it. One month later, in the presence of several unnamed officers near the Z Unit law library, Sergeant Derec Fletcher sprayed Jones in the face with pepper spray at close range, and, according to the workers’ comp investigation, said “What you gonna do now, bitch, tell on me?”
None of the officers present were identified in the complaint, but one reportedly asked Fletcher, “Why the hell did you do that?” Another called out to him, “That’s fucked up!”
Jones’ face almost immediately began to blister. He went home, saying he needed to change his clothes, and did not return for the rest of his shift. He never reported the incident, even though the discharge of pepper spray is considered nonlethal force that can cause serious and lasting injuries. In testimony taken after Jones’ suicide, Fletcher said: “I had an accidental negligent discharge of my pepper spray. It did spray him but, uh, there was nothing, uh, negative about it. I mean it was an accident. It was during training. It was an accidental negligent discharge. It wasn’t intentional in any way.”
Jones’ father-in-law, Robert Hartner, who spent eight years working at High Desert as a CO before moving to the parole division, suggested Fletcher sprayed Jones as a test of loyalty. “[Fletcher needs] to know that he can do or say whatever he wants,” Hartner said. “And whoever he’s doing that to will have his back. So if he’s out of line, he doesn’t have to worry about somebody telling on him.” A number of other COs I spoke with were similarly convinced that the spray was intentional. (Fletcher did not return a request for comment.)
Shortly after the incident, Jones took a few months off for knee surgery. In June 2008, he requested a return to Z Unit and was assigned to the Third Watch shift — 2 P.M. to 10 P.M. His new partner, Officer Anthony Lares, had been a paratrooper for 22 years before joining the CDCR, and shortly after coming to High Desert in April 2008, became known as a “loud-mouth” and a “troublemaker.” A big part of that reputation was likely due to his role as the Third Watch union job steward. Lares was responsible for writing notices to supervisors about faulty equipment and concerns over staff safety, which he sometimes concluded with barbs like, “God forbid that you lose a life of an officer today to save a dollar tomorrow.”
By all accounts, Jones was a loyal partner; he supported Lares for doing the right thing and that impulse may have cost him. Janelle’s complaint describes a cryptic exchange between Jones and Lt. Simmerson in the summer of 2009. After a shift one night, it appears Jones asked Simmerson for a talk and both men retreated to the cab of Jones’ truck. Beneath the floodlights of the parking lot, Jones voiced his ongoing concerns about the falsified workers’ comp claim and reported fears about some of the harassment he’d received in Z Unit. Simmerson allegedly responded by warning Jones about Lares. Lares, Simmerson allegedly said, was “going down” and Jones should separate himself from him lest he end up “collateral damage.”
Jones tried to defend Lares, but Simmerson reportedly cut him off. “Come on, Scott,” Simmerson said. “You know what’s going on out here.”
“No,” Jones said. “I don’t know what’s going on. You are talking in riddles. Just spit it out.”
“You know what?” Simmerson allegedly said. “Maybe it’s better if you don’t know what’s going on.”
Simmerson later testified in the workers’ comp investigation that he spent about 15 minutes in the parking lot discussing how Jones should handle a particular inmate. “I would never have threatened Jones,” Simmerson said. “Never. The dude was a good dude.”
Either way, rather than distance himself from Lares, Jones rallied around him, and, according to the complaint, became the target of increasingly vicious harassment. At first, the incidents seemed like juvenile pranks, almost funny. Jones came out of work one day to find his car windows open and the visors pulled down. Always meticulous about his vehicles, he was alarmed that someone was messing with his ride, but shrugged it off. A few weeks later, his car was keyed. He notified a sergeant, but no action was taken. He began to worry about taking his car in for repairs, believing someone might sabotage his brakes. He installed a camera in his car to catch whoever was breaking into it, or, he said, in case someone planted drugs or stole his cell phone to give to an inmate and set him up.
The harassment followed Jones home as well. Janelle says other officers somehow learned that she and Jones had recently bought a new Tempur-Pedic mattress, and would ask Jones in passing, jabbing elbows the whole time, what he thought of it. Jones grew suspicious that either his house was bugged or Janelle was actually having an affair. (Janelle says she never had an affair during their marriage.) An unidentified caller shouted into Jones’ phone, “Turn in your badge!” One summer evening in 2009, Jones, Janelle and their eight-year-old son Tyler took a walk on a scenic road in the hills outside of town. According to the complaint, when Jones reported for his shift later that day, he ran into one of his superiors, Sgt. Anthony Amero. “I saw you walking with your family today,” Amero said. “I thought about running you over and making you a hood ornament.” That same summer, Jones noted having to tell another sergeant, Scott Norton, “to quit calling me a bitch & not to make jokes about wife.” (Norton and Amero did not respond to requests for comment.)
When Jones called Hartner for advice, Hartner urged him to transfer. “Get away from those assholes,” he said.
“But I like my job,” Jones protested. “Just not the drama.”
Jones was the type who wanted to work and go home, but the good ol’ boys club that prevailed among other officers at High Desert extended beyond the prison walls. Most of the correctional officers were born and expected to die in Susanville. Their kids played Little League together. Their wives were friends too. They hosted BBQs and made long drives to Oakland Raiders’ games. Some officers were even known to swap wives at friendly “key parties,” where couples arrived with the expectation of leaving with the spouse of another.
Jones’ former co-worker Jesse Barron describes in the complaint the way officers organize themselves at High Desert. “They will have their own gangs, their own cliques, their own group of people that they hang with,” he said. “If you’re not part of that, you’re not welcome. It still happens today.”
Much like the initiation rituals of fraternity brothers, the practice of correctional officer hazing — though technically forbidden by the CDCR — appeared to be a means of imposing rank-and-file fealty at High Desert. Barron said that most hazing consisted of three things: forced restraint, copious amounts of freezing water and pepper spray. The purpose was either to celebrate a promotion or “to see if you’re going to tell, to see what you can take, to see what you’re made of,” he said. “And if you can take it without telling on anybody, then you made it.”
Because COs work in dangerous situations, under tight protocols, its widely understood that “rats” are not tolerated. According to a number of COs, it was common practice for supervisors to dismiss straight-and-narrow-types from their shift early in order to get away with bending the rules. But even if a CO wanted to report abuse, it wasn’t always clear that there was someone to rat to. When I asked Barron if he had reported any of the misbehavior or lapses in protocol he witnessed at High Desert, he responded, “When you see something like that happening, and your bosses are standing there watching it, or sometimes participating in such, who am I to report it to?” Keeping quiet, he later added, “was standard procedure in High Desert State Prison.”
The correctional officers’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), is theoretically supposed to protect officers — its tagline is “the toughest beat in the state” — but I was told repeatedly that it unofficially refused to support complaints against other COs. One former High Desert CO, who asked that I not identify him for fear of retaliation, said that after another CO punched him in the chest, breaking a number of his ribs, his union rep suggested that any horseplay that occurred must have been mutual. (The CCPOA did not respond to a request for comment except to say, the organization “is concerned about correctional officer suicide.”)
A number of former COs also claimed that, above all, they were expected to manipulate official reports to hasten convenient outcomes. Once, according to Jones and Lares, an inmate was stabbed multiple times by another inmate and their lieutenant asked them to write a report claiming the assailant was actually the victim (Jones and Lares refused to do so). Another time, Barron says he observed an inmate acting suspicious in his cell and called for a full body cavity search. When the inmate bent over, Barron saw traces of Vaseline on the inmate’s butt cheeks and anus. Inmates can hide shivs as along as seven inches in their rectums. Barron took the inmate to the metal detector and, sure enough, the alarm went off. His lieutenant allegedly told Barron to send the inmate out to the yard; he didn’t want to deal with the paperwork and scrutiny. I asked Barron whether this kind of shirking caused safety issues. “Of course it does,” he said.
Things seemed to get worse for Jones between 2009 and 2010, as a competition of sorts developed between the Second Watch (6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Third Watch (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) in Z Unit. During that year, Jones, Lares and Barron were on Third Watch with officer Anthony Tirado, then a junior officer with less than two years of experience in CDCR. Now a CO at Corcoran, Tirado says he entered the scene when the rivalry between Second and Third Watch “was going on,” and that Lares and Jones took him under their wing. Tirado says Lares taught him “how to keep himself safe” and describes Jones as “the best mentor” he’d ever had. (Barron also said Jones was good at his job.)
While Lares and Jones felt isolated and harassed, the Second Watch officers seemed to have, according to the complaint, the full support of at least two Z Unit supervisors: Lieutenants Simmerson and John McClellan (aka “Johnny Mac”). Barron testified in his deposition that the “relationship between Second Watch staff and their supervisors…were more personal than ours. They hung out together. They hunted together, they went fishing together.” The crew on Second Watch also allegedly ran their shift in a distinctive style. Daniel Meehan, who was an inmate at High Desert’s Z Unit at the time, told an investigator as part of the complaint that Second Watch created a “demonic” environment where inmates were threatened with violence for failure to comply. (In an email, McClellan declined to comment for this article due to ongoing litigation, but wished me luck on this “very important subject.”)
Barron also claimed in the complaint that officers on Second Watch seemed to use their good standing to set Jones, Lares and Barron up for failure. At one point, Second Watch officers convinced supervisors that they were overworked and suggested that Third Watch was neglecting their duties. As a result, Third Watch was increasingly tasked with sorting and distributing mail. Almost immediately, inmates complained that they weren’t receiving it. Barron said he, Lares and Jones soon discovered that someone — on Second Watch, they suspect — was hiding “fistfuls of mail” within the stacks of the law library. In his deposition, Lares described the professional troubles this caused them. “You have got supervisors coming after you telling you that ‘Hey, watch yourself for mail fraud because you are tampering with mail,'” he said. “I mean you know that is stress in itself. I mean every night when we’d leave there you didn’t know if you were going to be in your job tomorrow.”
The guys on Third Watch decided the only way to retaliate was to do their jobs better. Because Z Unit contained a number of influential inmates within the California prison system, officers were unofficially tasked with gathering information on drugs, gang movements and potential hits for in-house detectives with the Investigative Services Unit (ISU). Inmate informants are sometimes developed through incentives like extra Ramen, phone calls and cigarettes, or, according to a number of current and former COs, coerced with beatings and threats of deprivation. A retired CO told me that using informants wasn’t necessarily condoned, but it was one way that officers kept the peace by anticipating violence.
Jones and Lares came up with a creative way to get information from inmates without the hassle of developing informants. Lares explained in his deposition that they planted recording devices among books waiting to be re-shelved on the main table in the law library. Then they gave two inmates — each in a separate cage — the “privilege” of talking alone in the library. Lares and Jones hoped gathering critical information for ISU could improve their standing in the Z-Unit. “We would get in a lot of information,” Lares later told an investigator. “They think they really got it good because they are in there twice this week, when actually we were recording everything that they were doing.”
Initially, at least one Z Unit supervisor was apparently aware of the hidden recorder. Lares told investigators in the complaint that “when Lieutenant McClellan found out about the recordings, he ordered Jones and the other officers to stop making the recordings.” Barron said in his deposition that Jones had told him he was “getting grief” because some people in management “thought it may be illegal.” Then, according to both Jones’ and Lares’ testimonies, a CO tipped off shot callers in the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia that Lares and Jones had been taping their conversations. (Some suspect this CO may have been doing other favors for the inmates as well.) Consequently, according to Lares, in April 2010, an informant told prison staff that the Mexican Mafia was targeting Lares and Jones with death threats.
Shortly after, Mexican Mafia-affiliated inmates covered their cell openings with paper and cardboard as a form of protest. With Lares and Jones under death threat from the Mexican Mafia, additional security precautions kept inmates on lockdown for weeks — “the program” in Z Unit ground to a halt. To make matters even more galling for Third Watch, the central demand of Mexican Mafia shot callers was for Lares and Jones to be removed from duty in Z Unit. Lares told the workers’ comp investigator that a lieutenant returned from vacation “flying around all of this crap about we were going to get fired.”
According to the complaint, Jones felt like a marked man in the eyes of prison staff and inmates alike. According to his medical records, he was taking the antidepressant Paxil at the time. He had endured years of harassment and unwarranted scrutiny, the constant suggestion that he wasn’t man enough for the job or his wife, and fear of being caught in a lie and losing his workers’ compensation. Barron said that Jones “didn’t like the pressure and stress of working there.” Officer Tirado says that he could understand why the situation in Z Unit “would make someone want to kill himself,” adding, “I thought I was going crazy with all the drama.”
fficer Donald Anderson, who worked at High Desert for nearly four years, at times in the Z Unit, committed suicide in March 2012. His wife, Rachel Anderson, told me that he had never really gone into details about work, but she knew he was unhappy and stressed. “He wouldn’t partake in treating inmates in an inappropriate manner,” she says. “His thing was, ‘I’m here to babysit, not to be a dick.'”
One example she gave involved an inmate whose jaw was wired shut. Other COs simply ignored medical orders, but Anderson asked the kitchen staff to puree his food as required. As a result, Anderson says, the other correctional officers called her husband an “inmate lover.” At one point, someone stole Donald’s $350 winter jacket, covered it in eggs and flour, and returned it to a common area in Z Unit two weeks later. They “behaved like little boys with a lot of power,” Rachel says. “He did not think that there would be back up. He did not feel safe.” She blamed her husband’s death, at least in part, on the “clubbiness” among certain High Desert COs. “If you aren’t one of them,” she says, “they give you a tough time.”
In addition to the deaths of Jones and Anderson in 2012, at least three other COs have committed suicide in recent years. Officer Gregory Thompson killed himself in 2013, after being stabbed eight times by an inmate in the neck, shoulder and arm. A female officer took her life in a parking garage in Reno on the Fourth of July in 2010. Officer Shawn Ryberg, whose mother says was also harassed by his fellow COs, committed suicide in December 2008.
In 2011 and 2012, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) launched two independent investigations of High Desert. The first examined allegations of inmate abuse in Z-Unit, including lost or stolen mail, strip searches in the snow, lack of adequate clothing and claims that “a gang of rogue officers was victimizing inmates.” The OIG officially determined most of the allegations were unfounded, but also that “there were some concerns discovered that should be addressed by prison management staff.” In the second report, High Desert employees told investigators that certain COs incited violence to justify the use of physical force, including the discharge of pepper spray or informing other inmates that certain inmates were sex offenders. The OIG’s letter also expressed “a concern regarding a culture of abuse and code of silence” at High Desert. (The facility is reportedly again the subject of an OIG investigation.)
While the CDCR doesn’t comment on pending litigation, an official representative, Bill Sessa, told me that they have instituted a “zero tolerance” policy on harassment against whistleblowers. “As peace officers, all CDCR Correctional Officers take an oath to uphold the law,” Sessa told me. “They take that oath after graduating from our officer’s academy, where they are informed of the department’s standards for ethics and lawful behavior. Violations of those standards, including being culpable in hiding inappropriate behavior of others, are subject to the discipline” outlined in the California Code of Regulations.
By July 2011, Jones was determined to quit High Desert. He had bid out of Z Unit and transferred to a general population yard, but even there the harassment continued. According to the complaint, on July 4th, an inmate he was escorting across the yard suddenly fell to the ground. Later that day, a lieutenant allegedly told Jones, “So I hear you guys are taking inmates down over here and beating the shit out of them.” The next day, a correctional counselor walking across the same yard allegedly called to Jones, “Hey CO! When it comes the time, you better make sure you say the right thing.” The incident seemed to have pushed Jones over the edge — there didn’t appear to be anywhere for him to escape harassment. That night he told Janelle he wanted out.
On July 6th, Jones went to Susanville Supermarket to talk to his old manager about getting his job back. In the evening, when Janelle got home from work, Jones admitted that he had thought about shooting himself. When Janelle burst into tears, she says Jones hugged her and said, “I promise I am not going to do anything.” He would never do that to his family, he said. Plus, Janelle says he added, he might end up in Hell with all of his coworkers, and that was possibly the most unbearable thing of all.
Over a series of phone calls that week, Jones also told Sergeant Tim Reinertson (aka “Rhino”) about his decision to leave High Desert. Reinertson had known Jones since his supermarket days, and tried to reassure him that they could figure it all out. According to Janelle, who says she was present during one of the calls, Reinertson said Jones should take some time off, get some counseling and come back to work. Jones told him everything — the knee, the workers’ compensation claim and the years of harassment. “I hate how they play games out there and I am tired of the stress,” Jones told Reinertson. “I know this is almost five years ago, but I cannot take holding the lie anymore.”
Jones also told Janelle’s father Robert Hartner that he was going to quit that week. According to Hartner, Jones assured him that he would figure out another way to care for Janelle and Tyler. Hartner suggested Jones take some time off to relax. “I just can’t take it anymore,” Jones said of working at High Desert. “The stress, it’s just killing me.” Hartner told Jones he loved him and knew that he was a good man, a good husband and a good father. Jones said, “I love you, too.” That was their last conversation.
“I just can’t take it anymore,” Jones said of working at High Desert. “The stress, it’s just killing me.”
On the morning of July 8, 2011, Janelle went to work, while Jones drove to his parents’ house to drop Tyler off. Jones had an appointment that day with High Desert’s deputy warden to discuss his departure. “Okay, bud,” Jones told Tyler. “I’ll be back in a little bit.” The family made plans for a BBQ that weekend, and Scott promised to take his son shooting. “He may have lied to me Friday morning. He wouldn’t have lied to our son,” Janelle says. “Maybe to me, but not to him.”
Jones left a message for Lares that morning . The two had spoken often that week. In one call, Lares could tell his old partner had been crying. “He had a real squeaky voice,” Lares said in his deposition. “He had told me he wanted to thank me for being a good friend and a good partner.” They had plans for dinner that weekend.
Scott never made it to his meeting with the warden and didn’t pick up Tyler later that morning. Janelle brought their son home and discovered the gun was missing from the safe. Hartner called High Desert and his former coworker, Lt. Simmerson — no one had seen Jones that day. Family and friends searched the dirt roads of Jones’ favorite spots around Antelope Valley Reservoir and Lake Forest. That night, Hartner said he received a call from Lt. Simmerson. “Hey, dog,” Simmerson allegedly said. “Any news on Jonesey?” Then Hartner said that Simmerson asked if Jones had “been talking to his wife about what’s going on out at the prison.” Hartner hung up angrily. In his deposition, Hartner said, “Immediately that turned me off.”
A Susanville police officer found Jones’ Toyota Tacoma on a logging road in the Lake Forest area. Jones lay dead about 200 yards away. He had removed his baseball cap, placed it over his car keys and shot himself behind the right ear. His truck contained a bulletproof vest, his CDCR badges and handwritten notes carved with a round piece of brass on the pages of a spiral notebook. Without even a pencil that last day, he pressed down hard to make the letters appear: “Janelle, love you. Sorry. I told the truth. The job made me do it.”
Jones’ father-in-law, Robert Hartner —”Beautiful Bob” to his coworkers at High Desert where he was a CO for eight years — died of lung cancer this June. I spoke with him in the hospital shortly before his death. Wrapped in white gowns, rail-thin and coughing every other sentence, he was adamant about clarifying what he knew about Jones’ story.
At first, Hartner said, he didn’t completely believe the stories of harassment that Scott told him. “I thought he was overreacting,” Hartner said. Even on the week of Jones’ suicide, when Jones told Hartner all that had transpired at High Desert the previous five years, Hartner assumed Jones simply needed to take some time off and relax.
Hartner testified at his deposition, “Having worked there, I don’t want to believe that some of the names that Scott had told me over the time were involved in, I’d call it, less-than-honest behavior. So when Scott would talk to me about these things I would say, ‘Oh, maybe you are just reading into it.'”
At Jones’ funeral, Hartner asked Reinertson whether he passed along any of the information Jones told him the day before he killed himself. According to Hartner’s deposition in the complaint, Reinertson responded, “There was no information to pass on. He just wanted to quit his job.” (Reinertson did not respond to requests for comment.)
Hartner subsequently met with members of the High Desert administration about Jones’ alleged harassment. He figured the warden, someone he knew personally, had no idea what was happening to Jones on his watch. “I mean, his car being vandalized…harassed inside the institution, sprayed with pepper spray,” Hartner said. “These types of things were happening. To me, those are serious things. I mean, these are peace officers that are working there, and they are taking it upon themselves to be judge, executioner, you know, the whole bit. And they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.”
He was assured that his concerns were being addressed “at the Highest Levels Possible.” Instead, Hartner said in the complaint that officials at High Desert were conducting a “rogue” investigation about who among the COs might be vulnerable to allegations. He told Warden Michael McDonald in an email that he was “disturbed” that a lieutenant’s first reaction to Jones’ death was “all about covering his ass.” McDonald never returned the email.
At the end of our talk, Hartner sighed heavily. He said he hadn’t wanted to believe that guys he knew were capable of treating people this way. He looked spent and lay back on his pillow. “But now I believe that they just take these young men and throw them away when they don’t need them anymore.”