Inmates Death Highlights Corruption In Woman's Prison

Terry LucasPhoto by(Unsolved Mysteries Wiki)

The story of Terry Yvonne Lucas took place at Frontera Prison in California. Currently known as The California Institution for Women, The penitentiary is one of the largest women’s prisons in the United States. Some of California’s most violently dangerous women can be found in its maximum security wing. However, the criminal activity in Frontera extends far beyond the inmates. Allegedly, the prison guards and other employees have established their own drug trafficking ring in the heart of the facility. The male guards have also been accused of several acts of sexual abuse. But how does Terry Lucas come into this story? According to a key witness, She may have been ready to blow the whistle.

Terry Lucas worked as a housekeeper before being sent to prison due to a parole violation. In the Fall of 1987, she needed to be transferred to Frontera Prison to be treated for a breast tumor. Terry was found dead in the infirmary just a few months later. The prison officials treated her death very callously. According to other inmates, her body was left untouched for days before anything was done. Prison guard Betty Thompson came forward with her recollection of an encounter she had with Terry shortly before her death. Terry had developed a reputation among the guards as being very tough and intimidating. However, there was a prison guard that terrified her and made her change her demeanor entirely. There was one day when that prison guard was determined to get into Terry’s cell for unknown reasons. Betty Thompson saw how much this upset Terry and confronted the guard until he walked away. Thompson then entered Terry’s cell to comfort her, only to be told a devastating secret. Terry claimed to have knowledge of a murder committed by the guards of the facility.

Thirty-five-year-old divorced mother of two, Jesslyn Rich, was a security guard at Frontera Penitentiary in California, one of the largest penitentiaries for women in the United States. She mysteriously vanished in 1984. Some former employees believe that she may have been silenced because of what she knew about a prison drug ring that was being run by other guards. She was last seen at a country-western bar with friends on November 11, 1984. Her friend Marilyn claimed that Jesslyn appeared to be happy and in good spirits for the majority of the night. Then, at one point, she had looked straight at the door with great fear and soon after excused herself to the bathroom. Marilyn saw a man walk behind her as she went to the bathroom. This was the last time Jesslyn was ever seen.

Her family believed that she may have been kidnapped and murdered because she would have contacted her family and friends after being gone for a certain amount of time. She also would not have left her two children behind. Jesslyn's brother Gary found several clues in her house that made her family suspect that she knew about the illegal activities, that she was receiving several threats from other guards, and may have been murdered because of that. One clue was a torn up note that she had written to a co-worker. She wrote that another guard stated that "anyone interfering with my drug activities will be taken care of". Jesslyn's case would soon go cold with very little progress in finding answers. Then, Three years later, Terry Lucas was confessing that she knew what happened to Jesslyn Rich.

Terry claimed that Jesslyn was murdered by some of the prison guards because she'd stumbled upon some information regarding their drug smuggling activity. She even claimed that she had evidence to back it up. Thompson let Terry sleep with plans to check in with her the following morning. As planned, Thompson returned to the prison infirmary the next day. When she walked over to touch Terry, she noticed that she was dead. She went to the nurse’s station and told them that she'd found one of the inmates dead in the infirmary. She also told them about the “coldness” of the room, that Terry was not covered, her eyes were open, and her breakfast tray had not been touched. The nurses told Thompson that they would take care of it.

Betty Thompson claims that an official from the coroner’s office gave a damning summary of their findings. Blades of grass were in Terry’s hair, there were multiple bruises on her arms, neck, and face, and her right arm seemed to have been broken. The official believed that Terry Lucas was murdered and the cause of death was suffocation with the pillow found underneath her broken arm. Then, the official met with members of the prison administration. The official would change several details about their belief after coming out of that meeting. Suddenly, there would be no classification of murder. There would also be no mention of Terry’s body remaining in her cell for 3 days. Her cause of death was listed as “complications due to diabetes”.

Thompson alleges that she was subjected to threats and intimidation by her superiors for not wanting to go along with this narrative. She had to endure their tactics for 6 hours. She was even told that she would suffer the same fate as Jesslyn if she didn’t play along. Thompson realized at that point that she never told anyone what Terry confessed to her. For an administrator to bring up Jesslyn’s fate unprompted, it would seem that Terry’s confession had merit. Thompson broke down and cried. She caved and wrote what they told her to. However, at the bottom of the page, she noted that it was written and signed “under duress”. That statement was then ripped up and Thompson’s signature was forged.

Following a threatening phone call to her office, Thompson received the same veiled threat from another prison official. After seven months of similar calls, someone pulled their car up to Thompson's home and opened fire in June of 1988. Fortunately, she was not hit by any of the bullets. As the police at her home were taking a report, she got a phone call saying. "next time, we won't miss."

The resulting scandal covered several front-page articles in the Orange County Register over insider accounts of drug dealing and corruption. Betty Thompson and five other guards testified in State Senate hearings over the alleged offenses. When Unsolved Mysteries were taping their segment, prison officials declined to comment. A spokesman for the California Department of Officials claimed that there was no evidence for the incidents described. However, that would not prevent the information from eventually coming out. It first started In October of 1987. That is when thirty-three-year-old prison guard Harold Delon Anderson was fired for forcing inmates through threats and intimidation to perform sexual acts on him. Sadly, Anderson was never criminally charged with the acts despite the overwhelming mountain of evidence to prove that he did commit them. There were Several other guards who came forward and confessed that they witnessed these acts. In a familiar scenario, one of the prison guards who reported him would later receive harassing phone calls and intimidating anonymous notes. That same guard was also held in an office and harassed by other officers to keep quiet about what was witnessed.

Another guard would also come out with damning information. Christine Lopez claimed that she’d witnessed what she believed was a potential drug deal between two inmates. When she questioned one of them, her lieutenant, Karmen Juarez, appeared and prevented her from finding any more information. Lopez continued to dig into this instance and later discovered that drugs were being brought to inmates on a food cart. She alerted other prison guards and the group started searching the food carts more thoroughly. The searching of the carts effectively stopped the smuggling of the drugs through those means. Soon after those efforts, Lopez became the victim of harassment. She had holes punched in her radiator, the radiator hose was cut, and she received several silent phone calls at her home. In February 1990, she quit and later sought treatment for PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

In December 1990, Juarez was arrested and charged with attempting to dissuade a witness and preparing false documents. She pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of destroying evidence and was sentenced to just two years' probation. Neither she nor any other guards have been charged in Terry's case. And sadly, the cases of clear abuse at the prison did not stop back in the 1990s.

As recently as 2021, Two California Institute for Women inmates alleged in a federal lawsuit that prison officials used them as bait in a botched sting operation that allowed a predatory prison guard to sexually assault them. This occurred back in 2017. The women are still incarcerated and are not identified in the complaint filed. They are suing former corrections officer Stephen Merrill, who allegedly assaulted them, and Joseph Spinney, a captain at the California Institute for Women in Chino, who helped spearhead the sting operation. The women claim that they were instructed by Spinney to flirt with Merrill and encourage his advances one night. A camera was to be set up in their cell with audio recording capabilities to catch him in the act of attempting to sexually assault them. The women were even given a code phrase to alert Spinney that they were uncomfortable and needed the sting to end. Lawyers for the women claim that Spinney sat and waited until Merril had finished sexually assaulting the women before they entered the cell to take him away. Merill was eventually fired for his sexual conduct at the prison. In July of 2018, Merrill pleaded no contest to sexual activity by a public employee with a consenting confined adult. He received a two-year suspended prison sentence and three years of probation.

As it turns out, Jesslyn’s murder was not connected to Terry’s. In July 1992, the Orange County Sheriff's Office identified Jesslyn's killer as David Daniel Ribis. Ribis was a paroled ex-convict who had previously served time for assault. He worked at Charlie's Wild West Saloon, the bar where Jesslyn was last seen alive. He had been a suspect in the case for years and was even interviewed at least twice by police. On October 12, 1990, Ribis died of a heart attack at the age of forty-five. Shortly before his death, he revealed to family members that he had killed Jesslyn. Ribis had no connection to the illegal activities going on in Frontera Prison.

While some of the guards were brought up on charges related to their intimidation of the other guards, there have been no charges in Terry Lucas’s death. In 1991, her family accepted $290,000 from the state to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. With that settlement may have come the end of any answers we might get with regard to what actually happened to Terry Lucas.

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