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Ore. prisoner beaten to death in cell sought protection from Crips, Bloods

Michael Hagen was beaten to death in February 2012, when a corrections officer at the prison near Ontario put him in a cell with suspected Aryan Brotherhood member Terry Lapich

By Bryan Denson
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — Terrified by death threats from the Aryan Brotherhood, Oregon prisoner Michael Hagen reached out to the gangs he thought could protect him.

The Crips and Bloods.

Hagen knew that the African-American gangs, well represented at Snake River Correctional Institution, might be willing to stand up to his white supremacist tormenters.

But when Hagen, who is white, spoke to a leader in those gangs, this is what he heard: In Oregon’s prisons, blacks don’t protect whites.

So says Dennis Steinman, a Portland lawyer who represents Hagen’s widow in two lawsuits – a civil rights action filed in U.S. District Court, and a wrongful death complaint filed in state court.

Hagen was beaten to death in February 2012, when a corrections officer at the prison near Ontario put him in a cell with suspected Aryan Brotherhood member Terry Lapich, according to the federal lawsuit.

Tiffany Hagen’s lawsuits allege that her husband, a talented artist, was targeted by the notorious white supremacist gang after he refused to become one of its tattooists.

She accuses two officers of aiding and abetting her husband’s death, one of whom put Michael Hagen behind a steel door with his killer -- even though the officer was aware of their well-documented conflict.

No corrections officials have been disciplined as a result of Hagen’s death, and state Department of Justice officials have declined to comment on the case.

Steinman said in an interview Friday that Hagen was so desperate for help that he reached out to a leader of the African-American gangs who, like him, had served time in “the hole,” the prison’s disciplinary unit.

Eight days after Hagen’s slaying, the gang leader wrote to Steinman at his Portland law office.

“I know he was very scare(d) for his life, and wanted to do good for his family,” the gang leader wrote. “I couldn’t protect Mr. Hagen because the rules inmate(s) have in prison is (messed) up.

“In Oregon prison(s), black people only protect black people and white people only protect white people, Mexican(s) only protect Mexican people. I feel very bad for not protect(ing) Mr. Hagen. But I couldn’t.”

The gang leader, who Steinman did not name because he is not a client, offered to be a witness against the prison system.

Corrections officials work hard to thwart gang violence inside Oregon’s 14 prisons, but gangs exact their own interpretations of justice.

While it’s not yet clear what roles the Aryan Brotherhood and corrections officers played in Hagen’s killing, one thing appears certain. His death is likely to reach into the pocketbooks of Oregon taxpayers.

State Department of Justice lawyers recently admitted in county court papers that the prison system’s negligence played a substantial role in Hagen’s injuries and death. This exposes the state to damages.

But lawyers on both sides of the case differ on how much money the state might be forced to pay for Hagen’s death. His widow seeks $7.5 million in damages, but the state’s lawyers say that grossly exceeds Oregon’s cap on tort claims.

Hagen’s federal lawsuit, which accuses the Department of Corrections of putting her husband through cruel and unusual punishment, exposes the state to great financial risk. There are no caps on tort claims in U.S. District Court and, unlike similar cases in state court, her lawyers can ask for punitive damages and potentially recover attorney’s fees.

State Department of Justice lawyers recently filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit, saying Tiffany Hagen was wrong to add the names of several correctional officers as defendants after a two-year statute of limitations ran.

Hagen’s suit points out that authorities in Malheur County, who were building a murder case against Lapich, refused to hand over papers shedding light on her husband’s killing until it was too late.

“It is well-settled,” they wrote in court papers, that “a statute of limitations should be used only as a shield, not a sword.”

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, who once served as a corrections counselor in Portland, presides in the case from the federal courthouse in Eugene.

Lapich, now 33, faces an aggravated murder charge in Malheur County.