Documents weren’t signed, policies weren’t followed and an inmate says Eric Robert and Rodney Berget ‘were manipulating the system’ to obtain the freedom inside the prison that allowed the inmates to murder Correctional Officer Ronald 'RJ' Johnson as part of a failed 2011 escape.
The new details have been uncovered in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Johnson’s wife, Lynette, against the Department of Corrections. The documents were filed late last week after depositions with top prison officials, prison staff and at least one inmate.
The documents detail several breakdowns and policy violations that allowed the two maximum security inmates to work freely in the main prison instead of being housed in the maximum security Jameson Annex of the South Dakota Penitentiary.
Berget and Robert both had disciplinary records inside the prison walls and both had escape attempts on their record. At the time of Johnson's murder the two were classified as maximum security inmates but continued to be housed in the main prison building because of an ‘administrative decision.’
Documents detail that Warden Doug Weber, who retired in June, met with Berget in June of 2004 while Berget was on a hunger strike. After that meeting Berget ended his hunger strike and was moved to the main prison and he remained there for nearly seven years until he murdered Johnson in April of 2011 as part of a failed escape.
A Statement of Material Facts filed by Johnson’s attorneys details the same set of circumstances surrounding Robert’s classification at the penitentiary. Robert wouldn’t end his hunger strike in 2009 until he met with Warden Weber. Following that meeting, Robert ended his hunger strike and was also moved from the maximum security unit to West Hall and given a job. Despite a lengthy disciplinary record and previous escape attempts, Robert remained at the main prison building until Johnson’s murder in 2011.
Documents also reveal that the Department of Corrections Classification and Transfer Manager disagreed with the statement made in the After Incident Report following Johnson’s death in 2011 that said ‘penitentiary followed all policies and procedures,’ because the DOC failed to obtain the ‘appropriate approvals’ for placement of Berget and Robert. The appropriate signatures were also missing on some of the documents and the ‘paperwork is missing’ with regard to Berget’s move from the Jameson Annex to West Hall.
Even Weber himself admitted in his deposition that ‘policies’ were violated but he denies that he ever made a deal with Berget and Robert to move them to West Hall. Weber was questioned by Johnson’s attorneys in February just four months before his retirement.
In the deposition, Weber says other senior prison officials initiated Berget and Robert’s move from maximum security custody to the main prison. However there is no documentation indicating any other staff met with Berget or Robert before they ended their hunger strikes and were transferred.
DOC staff member Rebecca Weaver even testified as part of the lawsuit that shortly after Johnson was murdered in 2011 she made a copy of the classification documents for Berget and Robert because she was concerned ‘the documents would be changed.' Weaver testified in her deposition that former DOC staff member Deb Boddicker told her that Warden Weber would attempt to blame someone else for the decision. Weaver went on to say that she overreacted and eventually shredded the documents.
The documents further reveal that even the inmates knew that Robert and Berget were trying to play the system inside the prison walls.
“Robert and Berget forced the administration to move them by refusing to eat and refusing to do other things,” inmate Tim Henry told the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation on April 13, 2011, the day after Johnson’s murder. “Effectively telling the Warden to kiss their ass.”
The Department of Corrections is working to file a response with the court.
Ben Dunsmoor is looking into the court papers and will have more information on KELOLAND News.
Read the court documents in the attached PDF below: