Ex-inmate finds no evidence officials poisoned prisoners, sold organs

Former inmate Samuel P. Chavez failed to find evidence at Old Main penitentiary that would prove officials poisoned inmates years ago and sold their organs and blood

By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — Former state prison inmate Samuel P. Chavez fought a two-year court battle for the right to search the grounds of the Old Main penitentiary for evidence he said would prove prison officials poisoned inmates there years ago and sold their organs and blood.

He finally got his chance Wednesday. But after revisiting the buildings at the abandoned prison south of Santa Fe, where he was once incarcerated, and digging for an hour in the yard outside, Chavez came up empty-handed.

The Las Cruces man spent 23 years in state-run prisons on a conviction of second-degree murder in 1988. During his time behind bars, he was put in solitary confinement for more than seven years. He says that wasn't the worst of what he endured. 

Officials also asked gang members to kill him and poisoned his food and water, damaging his eyesight, he claims. And he says he collected and buried evidence -- ledgers and sealed jars of tainted food -- that prison officials had experimented on prisoners, poisoned them and sold body parts on the black market.

He was hoping to unearth that material Wednesday.

"It's a disappointment," he said at the end of his fruitless search.

But Chavez, 57, said, he's not giving up. He plans to petition a judge to order the state Department of Corrections to give him access to an underground portion of Old Main that he couldn't search Wednesday because the only door to the area had been welded shut. "What really upsets me more than anything is the way they blocked all the entrances," he said.

The deadly prison riot at Old Main in 1980 was before Chavez's time there, but he served as a prisoner advocate through the Duran Decree, an effort to improve the poor conditions that had helped spark the riot. Chavez says this role made him a thorn in the side of prison officials, and they punished him by threatening his life and keeping him in solitary confinement for years at a time.

He petitioned the state's First District Court for help in 2004, and convinced a judge to order the Corrections Department to put him back with the general prison population.

In his order, then-Judge Michael Vigil said not a single Corrections official could explain why Chavez had been put in segregation for so long.

In 2007, Chavez filed a civil rights complaint against the Corrections Department that has been slowly winding its way through the courts. He kept up the fight after his release in 2012. In 2014, he filed a motion for permission to inspect the underground passageways, cells and grounds of Old Main for the evidence he claims he buried there. A judge approved the search, despite objections from the Corrections Department.

Chavez arrived at the Corrections Department's administration building on N.M. 14 looking fresh and hopeful Wednesday morning, with an entourage that included the department's Deputy Secretary of Administrative Support Alex Sanchez, Director of Adult Prisons Jerry Roark, General Counsel Jim Brewster, two reporters, two photographers and two private attorneys for the department.

"There's the death house I was threatened with," he said while passing a windowless block building topped with barbed wire. "Those are the strip cages where they strip you down when you come in and out," he added, noting a metal grate cubical about the size of a shower stall.

The first stop was a cellblock. Chavez took a deep breath before taking off his shoes and belt, emptying his pockets and walking through the doors. He was led down two flights of stairs to a tiny cell, outfitted with a concrete bunk and desk, a stainless steel commode and a sink.

"It's approximately 86 square feet," he said of the cell. "But sometimes, it feels like it was 2 feet by 2 feet. ... I did almost four years in that cell, if not more."

While visiting another cell, Chavez said, "I'm already getting nauseous from this place."

Inmates used to talk to one another through the heating vents and use their sheets to clog their toilets and flood their cells and surrounding pods, he said. "You'd be standing in sewer water for days with no water to drink and no water to flush your toilet." He knelt down to take a picture. "I wish I'd had a camera back then."

In a cluttered, dusty, grimy corridor in the building's basement, Chavez sniffed the air. "Same musty smell," Pointing toward cells off the hallway, he said, "That's where they used to torture and rape the prisoners."

He stopped outside a door labeled Mental Health and Community Programming and asked one of the guards to open it, but he was told the department didn't have a key.

The officials trailed him as he searched for an entry point to an underground crawl space. But the only door that could have led him there, a boiler room door, had been welded shut.

As the group headed outside, he noted another dark recess. "Those were the gallows where they would hang prisoners and rape them," he said, "and then take them back upstairs and hang them up in their cells."

The comment drew an exasperated "Oh, man" and a sigh from one of the officials.

Chavez then set off across a weedy dirt yard behind the prison, shovel in one hand, duffel bag in the other. He paced off a distance from a falling-down bandstand and began to dig. He dug by himself, surrounded by reporters and lawyers who were looking at their cellphones and discussing their lunch. Under a blazing midday sun, he had exactly an hour to dig for the evidence.

He seemed to brighten when he found concrete debris. He'd buried toxin-laced food in glass jars encased in concrete, he said. "If I see any broken glass, I know I'm in the right place."

As his hole grew deeper, Chavez stood inside it, tapping its walls with his shovel. "Sounds kind of hollow," he said.

After 21 minutes, he retrieved a sweatband from his bag, slipped it on his head and kept digging. He finished his water, and applied eye drops. "This is why I was kind of hoping we'd do it in the winter."

He kept digging, stopping now and then to strike at a concrete lump or sift debris through his fingers like an archaeologist. "I guess even concrete after 20 some odd years decays in the ground," he said.

By the time his hour was nearly up, Chavez was hip-deep in the hole. He said, "I know we buried it deep, but not this deep."

A lawyer called, "30 seconds," then "time up." Chavez climbed out of the hole. Nobody said anything.

"It's all rigged," he said a few minutes later, as he walked with his bag and his shovel back toward the parking lot. "If I could have gotten in there, inside, I know I would have gotten it out of there. I know exactly where it is."

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