Honoring Fallen Corrections Officers
By Cary Arberg, June 1, 2011
Throughout U.S. history, 571 correctional officers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Nine of those officers served with the Georgia Department of Corrections. Four of those officers died in a single incident — a horrific automobile crash on February 27, 1997.
At approximately 12:50 pm, a van full of correctional officers from the Jack T. Rutledge State Prison was returning home to Columbus, Georgia from a visit to the Valdosta State Prison for an emergency response team training class. The van was traveling north on the Interstate when it was suddenly struck by a tractor trailer, forced off the road, and knocked across the median into the southbound lane. The van was thrown directly into the path of two trucks. The deadly collision took the lives of four peace officers — Correctional Officers Wayne H. Griglen, Carlton R. Cherry, Sr., Eddie M. Davis, and Sergeant Tommie L. Goggins. All died instantly. Eight other officers were injured. The driver who initially struck the patrol van was ultimately arrested and charged with four counts of vehicular homicide.
The crash that took the lives of those four Georgia corrections professionals represents one of the deadliest days in law enforcement history. The names of those four officers along with the 567 other correctional officers who have lost their lives in the performance of duty, are all proudly inscribed on the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Two of those 571 officers lost their lives nearly 90 years ago during a prison riot and escape attempt at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Western Penitentiary. On February 11, 1924, at approximately 9:00 am, a roaring explosion rang throughout the prison. The south wall of the building had been partially demolished in a dynamite explosion. As the prison filled with smoke, a stampede of prisoners rushed the door. Chaos erupted, but the explosion had not fully destroyed the wall. Two guards, Yard Sergeant John T. Coax, and Deputy Warden John A. Pieper, were attempting to apprehend the rioters and stop the disorder when a prisoner stole one of their service weapons and gunned them down with a hail of bullets. The two corrections professionals were both killed. The prisoners continued to flee in a crazed mass, but were soon stopped by a host of correctional officers who disarmed them and returned all of the prisoners to their cells. Not a single person escaped.
This infamous incident became known as the “Four Horsemen” prison break, named for the gang thought to have orchestrated the attempted getaway. Yard Sergeant Coax was 30 years old when he died, and had served in law enforcement for two years. Deputy Warden Pieper was 35 years old and had served in law enforcement for three years. Both officers left behind a wife and three children.
This year, on May 13, at the 23rd Annual Candlelight Vigil at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, 316 new names were formally added to the Memorial walls. This includes 152 fallen officers who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2010, five of whom were correctional officers — Jefferson County (AR) Deputy Sheriff Leonard S. Wall; Senior Parole Agent Ellane Aimiuwu of the Illinois Department of Corrections; Correctional Officer Tracy E. Cooper of the Illinois Department of Corrections; Crawford County (PA) Correctional Officer Gary M. Chapin; and Maine Correctional Officer John H. Paskewicz.
Immediately after participating in a firearms training drill, Corrections Officer John H. Paskewicz suffered a fatal heart attack. Affectionately known as “Packy” by his colleagues and friends, Corrections Officer Paskewicz was described as a lively jokester, and his sudden death was shocking to all who knew him, especially to those who saw him collapse. One of those officers was his son, who had worked with his father for the past nine years. “We did all we could do to help him,” he said. According to one of his supervisors, Officer Paskewicz had a “magnetic personality” and “gift of gab” that allowed him to befriend everyone he met, even prisoners. He was “well respected by staff and prisoners alike,” said Prison Superintendent Scott Burnheimer. Officer Paskewicz was 58 years old when he died and a 20-year law enforcement veteran. He is survived by his three children, four grandchildren, and fiancée.
Of the 571 correctional officers honored on the Memorial walls, 45 have died as a result of heart attacks and other job-related illnesses. But, firearms-related fatalities lead all categories of line of duty deaths —176 correctional officers have been shot and killed. After firearms-related fatalities, the leading causes of death for correctional officers are stabbings and beatings—146 have been stabeed and 89 beaten to death. Traffic-related incidents have accounted for the deaths of 59 correctional officers. Forty-five of those officers died in automobile crashes and 14 were struck and killed while outside of their vehicle.
Twenty-four of the fallen correctional officers whose names are engraved on the Memorial walls are women. Added this year is Correctional Officer Donna J. Fitzgerald from the Florida Department of Corrections. She made the ultimate sacrifice on June 25, 2008, when she was murdered by an inmate at the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Volusia County, Florida. One of the inmates, who was serving two life sentences for rape and kidnapping, had gotten separated from the other prisoners and was moving freely about the premises, unsupervised. When Officer Fitzgerald came searching for him, he hid inside a shed, clutching a make-shift knife crafted from a sheet of folded metal. When she approached the shed, the inmate ambushed and stabbed her more than 20 times, savagely killing her. The inmate was charged with first degree murder.
Correctional Officer Fitzgerald was 50 years old and a 14-year law enforcement veteran when she was killed.. She left behind her 20-year-old son, Kyle, who wore a pink tuxedo jacket to her funeral as a tribute to his mother. The vibrant color shone through the blur of blue, green, brown and black worn by hundreds of officers there to honor their fallen colleague. Officer Fitzgerald is one of 25 officers from the Florida Department of Corrections who have died protecting and serving their state and country. "Words cannot express the sorrow I feel over the loss of our correctional officer," Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil said. "The entire department grieves the murder of one of our finest officers and we pray for the victim's family during this difficult time."
Each of the 571 correctional officers honored at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial has his or her own extraordinary story to be told. In addition to the existing Memorial — a richly deserved tribute to the heroic peace officers who have given their lives for the protection of America’s citizens — the first-ever National Law Enforcement Museum is now under construction in Washington, DC. Authorized by Congress and scheduled to open in late 2013, the Museum will be located across the street from the National Memorial. Through high-tech, interactive exhibitions, historical artifacts, and extensive educational programming, the story of American law enforcement will be told like never before.
And just as corrections professionals have been part of this Memorial from the beginning, the corrections profession will be highlighted in the Museum on the day it opens. Thanks to a generous one million dollar donation from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the Museum will feature an extensive and exciting look at the corrections profession. There, visitors will learn the history of corrections, experience the sights and sounds of a correctional facility, become inspired by the stories of men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for others, and hear firsthand accounts from the outstanding professionals who assume the risks and accept the challenges of working in correctional institutions across our nation.
For more information on the Museum, visit:www.LawEnforcementMuseum.org.
Cary Arberg is on the Communications staff at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Visit www.LawMemorial.org for more information about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.