When a rapist who murdered one of his cellmates in the Spokane County Jail requested a transfer to a medium-security prison several years later, the approval process at the Washington Department of Corrections was quick and routine.
Although prisoner Michael Lee West Jr. was known for his disturbing levels of violence, he’d managed to avoid serious trouble for about four years. The transfer request was approved, and a prisoner long deemed a serious threat arrived at Airway Heights in 2010 as a minimum-security inmate.
The results were tragic.
Just 10 days into his stay, the 35-year-old attacked two cellmates in what prison officials describe as a horrific barrage that left one man blind. Prison staff who rushed to the cell found a victim with his left eye hanging from the socket and his right eye severely damaged. West stood by, chanting religious phrases and proclaiming himself Lucifer.
Despite a well-documented history that included pleas by prison officials for lifetime lockup, none of those warnings and concerns traveled with him. The brutal assault was the Airway Heights staff’s first indication that this new inmate was prone to severe behavioral problems – even though West had warned his psychiatrist that he planned to stop taking his medication after his transfer.
State officials say no departmental policies were violated in West’s transfer and no employees were disciplined. But they’ve instituted changes they hope will prevent future problems, including additional layers of top-level review for prisoners being treated for mental health problems.
Still, the West case illustrates the dangers that can lurk inside state prisons and the critical role that seemingly innocuous bureaucratic procedures such as proper paperwork trails can serve.
“Prisons are dangerous places,” said DOC Deputy Prisons Director Earl Wright. “We make every effort to mitigate those dangers, but bad things do happen in prison.”
But Joe Fitzpatrick, a longtime DOC employee who retired as a captain at Airway Heights, said the case exemplifies the need for a complete overhaul of the prison system.
“It was so incompetent,” Fitzpatrick said of West’s transfer. “That man should have never been there.”
A startling history of violence
West has experienced both sides of violence and tragedy in his life.
His 12-year-old sister was abducted and killed in a 1991 case that would later prompt the establishment of Spokane’s first COPS substation. West was incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility at the time and has referred to the painful feelings of loss he endures over his sister’s murder.
“I deserve to die in here. I know how (my victims) feel because of my sister,” West told counselors at one point, according to prison records. “I wish someday I could take the pain away from those I hurt. I wish I could tell them why, but I don’t know why.”
His convictions outside of prison include several armed assaults, rape and robbery. His rap sheet grew even longer while in prison, including the heinous 2004 beating death of his cellmate at Spokane County Jail, where he was being held on a rape charge.
Spokane County paid the family of 21-year-old victim Christopher Rentz $180,000 to settle a federal lawsuit in what’s considered one of the most horrific attacks ever documented in the county jail. Rentz had been arrested in connection with a gas theft but was facing a robbery charge because he allegedly shoved the gas station attendant.
“West is indeed a very dangerous individual,” prison officials wrote at one point. “He has shown a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects that his behavior has had on other people … He lacks guilt and remorse, and he has shrugged off personal responsibility for his conduct. He has an uninhibited approach to violence that is callous. His emotions are shallow. His aggression is intense and his impulsivity is pronounced.”
The behavior continued while West was in treatment at Eastern State Hospital, where staff said he often threatened to kill them and said “he had nothing to lose.” Prison officials said West “did not show substantial improvement” when he was released from Eastern State Hospital.
“He remains a dangerous individual,” officials wrote.
Transfer not scrutinized
But when West arrived at Airway Heights Corrections Center last September, prison staff knew nothing of his background.
Prison psychologist Louis Sowers emailed Michael Walls, DOC director of mental health, after the Oct. 10 attack and said the prison “was never aware (West) was coming.”
“Obviously, my staff are upset and concerned,” Sowers wrote.
West had undergone intensive mental health treatment, but a counselor said West was “never consistent” with taking his medications and, when he didn’t, “would become religiously preoccupied and also exhibited an elevation of his mood.”
Staff psychiatrist Crispin Juguilon, who’d been treating West since September 2009, worried about his violent tendencies. Juguilon said West needed medication to control his mood and prevent him from getting into conflicts about his religious beliefs.
“Off of his medication, he observed an offender who was capable of committing the same type of crime that got him a murder 1 conviction,” according to a report. Juguilon encouraged West to convert his medication to monthly shots, but West refused.
“Dr. J. advised the offender to stay on his medication,” according to a report.
But West didn’t comply, and officials at Airway Heights did not learn of his spotty medication compliance until after the assault.
Jon Gradwohl, classification counselor at Washington State Penitentiary, and mental health counselor David Lundgren approved West’s transfer to Airway Heights, which was also reviewed by John Avery, unit manager at the penitentiary.
Avery said he was aware of West’s conviction for murdering his cellmate but said Lundgren agreed “that West had earned a transfer” because he’d only had two infractions in five years – none for violent acts.
West was promoted to medium custody in February but was retained at Washington State Penitentiary in a mental health unit. He told his counselors he felt that classification was unfair and asked to be placed in general population, which led to his transfer to Airway Heights.
West arrived at the medium-security prison on Sept. 28. His file was given to a mental health counselor, but that counselor was on vacation. West had also been scheduled to meet with mental health experts Oct. 8 at Airway Heights, but he never showed up. The meeting was rescheduled. But before it could occur, two guards at Airway Heights Corrections Center observed West’s violence and mental health issues firsthand.
Ten minutes after corrections officer Daryl Ramirez performed a routine check of the area where West was housed with two cellmates, he and another officer, Jonathan McLaughlin, heard screaming.
The officers arrived to find West restraining cellmate Gary L. Welch in a chokehold and punching him in the head.
Cellmate Chad E. Bolstad was lying on the cell floor in a pool of blood. His left eye was out of its socket, and his right eye was severely damaged.
West complied with McLaughlin’s and Ramirez’s orders to get on the ground. He later told an investigator he did so because the men looked like “guardian angels.” West also knelt to the ground and prayed while being transferred out of the cell.
Over the next several hours, officers observed West lay face first on his cell floor screaming, “I am the Antichrist” and “I’m Lucifer and I ripped the eyeballs out of that child molester!”
Bolstad, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has two 2005 convictions for third-degree child rape for having sex with a 12-year-old girl when he was 18. He was sentenced to two years in prison but returned in 2007 after stabbing a man during a beer robbery. He’s to be released in 2015. Welch was serving two years for drugs, theft and forgery in Douglas and Chelan counties; he’s scheduled to be released as early as August.
Prison officials defended the men’s placement in a cell together and said no changes have been made to how cellmates are selected.
“We’re always challenged with trying to mitigate the potential of cellmates who may be predatory to others, but at the same time we have capacity challenges that require us to house one or more individuals in a cell at a time,” said Timothy Hunter, director of Behavioral Health Services for the DOC. “It’s a challenge to us to make those decisions.”
Drafting new policy
West is charged with first-degree assault and second-degree assault. He underwent a mental health evaluation at the Washington State Penitentiary after a judge ruled it was too dangerous to transport him to Eastern State Hospital.
Though West is in solitary confinement at Washington State Penitentiary, prison officials say it’s possible he could eventually be placed back in general population with cellmates.
“In this particular case, that would probably be somewhere very far down the road,” Wright said.
But officials agree that the lack of communication that surrounded West’s transfer was a problem. Had Airway Heights officials known of his sensitive mental health history, they may have reconsidered his placement. And they might have made sure he didn’t miss mental health appointments. A new policy is being drafted.
“Each case is being brought to headquarters on a case-by-case basis,” Wright said. “Our policy will really specify at an operational and procedural level who talks to whom.”