Florida Prison Guards and KKK Members Arrested in Plot to Murder Black Ex-Inmate
FlaglerLive | April 2, 2015
Two Florida prison guards and a former prison worker who are members of the Ku Klux Klan were arrested Thursday for allegedly plotting to kill a black ex-inmate in retaliation for a fight.
Thomas Jordan Driver and David Elliott Moran, who worked at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, and Charles Thomas Newcomb, an “Exalted Cyclops ” of the group called the “Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” each were charged with conspiracy to commit murder for allegedly planning to kill the former inmate by injecting him with insulin and making it appear as though he had drowned while fishing.
The men allegedly targeted the unnamed inmate because he had been in a fight with Driver last year, before the prisoner was released.
Arrest documents in the case expose chilling details of the Klan’s organization in North Florida and offer a reminder of the region’s ugly history of racism.
The arrests were the result of a joint probe by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office of Statewide Prosecution and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Several other state and federal law-enforcement agencies also participated in the investigation or arrests, according to a press release issued by Bondi’s office.
Moran, 47, and Driver, 25, worked at the prison about 25 miles north of Gainesville. Newcomb worked briefly at the same facility for three months but was dismissed in January 2013 for failing a certification exam. Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones fired Moran and Driver after their arrests Thursday.
Moran went to work for the corrections agency in 1996 and was promoted to sergeant eight years later. According to corrections department records, he received two written reprimands, including one in 1999 for conduct unbecoming a public officer after using a tire iron to smash a vehicle he believed belonged to someone who had attacked him and his brother at a convenience store. He was not arrested or charged with any crime related to the incident.
In the murder plot, an informant helped authorities nab the guards, according to an affidavit for an arrest warrant by an unidentified FBI agent. Driver and Moran told the informant that they wanted the former inmate “six feet under.”
Newcomb — identified in the arrest documents as the “exalted Cyclops,” or the official head of the TAKKKK — hatched a plan to inject the former inmate in his neck with insulin, put a fishing pole in his hand and take him to a nearby fishing spot. Newcomb, Moran and the informant drove past the former inmate’s house in Palatka several times but their target did not appear.
“I set that fishing pole like he’s been fishing, and give him a couple shots, and we sit there and wait on him, then we can kind of lay him like he’s just kind of tippled over into the water. And he can breathe in just a little bit of that water,” Newcomb, who was also armed, told Moran, according to a transcript of the conversation included in the affidavit.
The FBI later took a photo of the intended victim that made it look as though he had been shot, and the informant showed it to Newcomb, Moran and Driver, according to the arrest documents. The men smiled, laughed or congratulated the FBI’s informant when they saw the picture, the documents show.
“Moran was smiling excitedly when he saw the photograph that depicted (the former inmate) had been murdered. Moran also gave (the informant) an enthusiastic handshake upon seeing the photograph,” the affidavit said.
Florida Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox will prosecute the case in Columbia County, Bondi’s office said. Newcomb was being held in the Alachua County Jail, while the other two were being held in Union County.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Bondi would not say if more arrests were expected but that more information would be revealed as the case progresses.
When asked if the arrests indicate that racism “is alive and well in Florida,” Bondi replied in the affirmative.
“Oh, it is. It is. And we will never tolerate, or ever remain silent, over the violence of hate embedded in prejudice in our state or in this country,” she said.
Thursday’s arrests are the latest troubles for the beleaguered corrections agency, which has been under scrutiny for months amid reports about inmate deaths at the hands of prison guards, widespread corruption and accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers.
When Bondi’s announcement about the arrests was released Thursday morning, Jones, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year as the fourth agency chief in as many years, was being questioned by senators during a confirmation hearing.
Jones told reporters she had been told by the FBI about the arrest but did not have any knowledge of the investigation.
“I’ve not been briefed on the basics of this case so I can’t comment. I don’t know what to make of it,” she said. “The FBI briefed me on an arrest but not the circumstances. I just helped them facilitate the arrest. I didn’t know who, and I wasn’t told what the circumstances were.”
Reports that Klan members were working inside the prison were “disquieting,” Jones said.
Later, she issued a statement announcing the two guards had been fired and decrying the plot.
“Our department has zero tolerance for racism or prejudice of any kind. The actions of these individuals are unacceptable and do not, in any way, represent the thousands of good, hardworking and honorable correctional officers employed at the Department of Corrections,” she said.
Adora Obi Nweze, head of the Florida branch of the NAACP, said she was not surprised by the arrests or the exposure of the KKK in the state.
“The environment that we have here in Florida as well as throughout the country makes it a very comfortable environment for Klansmen and persons of ill will and willingness to commit crimes specifically against blacks and others. There is nothing to show them that they couldn’t get away with it,” she said.
The Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan does not officially have any branches in Florida, according to Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok. But Potok said that is not unusual because white supremacist groups like the one the Lake Butler guards allegedly belong to “have gone underground” in recent years.
Frank Ancona, the leader of the Missouri-based organization, made headlines in November when he distributed fliers in the St. Louis area in which he threatened to use lethal force against demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo.
While it is rare for prison guards to be directly involved with hate groups, racism among law enforcement officers is more common, Potok said.
Last year, Fruitville Park Deputy Police Chief David Borst stepped down and another officer was fired after the FBI reported that the pair had been involved with the KKK. Three Fort Lauderdale police officers were fired and another resigned last month after an investigation into racist text messages.
Thursday’s arrests are “the tip of the iceberg,” Nweze said.
The NAACP has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an audit of Florida’s prison system. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating unresolved inmate deaths and the FBI is probing several prisons throughout the state.
“I hope this will cause those who have oversight of the prisons to move ahead to with investigations of how deep this goes,” Nweze said.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida