Prison guard charged with murder in inmate death
Tucson convict died as result of Nov. beating, autopsy found
|By L. Anne Newell and Howard Fischer
ARIZONA DAILY STAR CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES
A veteran Department of Corrections officer has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the November beating death of an inmate at the Tucson state prison, officials said Tuesday.
Officer Ronald Cuestas, 43, also faces a charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument for the Nov. 6 death of Timothy Sweet, 40.
Neither DOC officials nor authorities with the Pima County Attorney's Office would say exactly what role Cuestas is believed to have played in the death, although they said other people may face charges, too.
An attorney for Candy Lovett, Sweet's sister, said talks with officials lead her to believe at least one inmate was involved, although she and Lovett have been frustrated by the lack of information that's been released.
Attorney Erin Alavez also is preparing a wrongful death claim against the state, though Alavez said she and Lovett were pleased by the decision to file charges.
Meanwhile, the officer's attorney, Michael Bloom, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the charges and predicted that Cuestas, a father of four, will be exonerated.
"The evidence is going to show that Mr. Cuestas has been a fine employee of the DOC," Bloom said. "He has an unblemished work record and I'm convinced the evidence will show he's totally blameless in this matter."
Few details have been released about the incident since Sweet, serving a 17-year prison term, was found dead in his locked cell with his cellmate during what DOC officials said was a "routine check" at the prison at 10000 S. Wilmot Road.
Nothing unusual was suspected at first, despite Sweet's young age, because he had health problems, DOC spokeswoman Cam Hunter said. An autopsy reported he had hepatitis and a rare necrosis - an area of dead tissue - of the liver.
It was only after the post- mortem examination, Hunter said, that the agency realized he had been killed. That exam showed Sweet died of multiple blows, including a skull fracture and several broken ribs. The blows to his chest also resulted in a lacerated spleen, doctors found.
Cuestas, who's been with the DOC since 1985, was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after the death and hasn't been allowed to return to his $33,470-a-year job since.
Hunter called the incident an anomaly, and said there's no evidence of any pattern of crimes in the prison.
"It saddens us," she said. "It's tragic, absolutely, that this sort of thing could happen."
Among other precautions, Hunter said officials have been rotating officers in the unit to ensure they don't work with the same inmates on a regular basis. She said officials also are reviewing the incident internally, to determine if anything else could have prevented it - or to keep incidents like it from happening in the future.
"We have a concern for the safety of everybody, the public, the staff and the inmates," she said. "We are taking steps to ensure that this sort of behavior will not happen again."
The charges were filed last week, and Cuestas was formally notified Friday, said David Berkman, chief criminal deputy at the Pima County Attorney's Office. He added that the officer has a preliminary hearing May 17, in which officials hope to show that there's enough evidence for a trial.
"The only other comment I can give you is that we don't comment on cases that are pending," Berkman said. "This involves an incident that occurred at the facility, and that's all I can say."
The investigation into the incident continues, he said.
Court records show Cuestas is supposed to appear in Pima County Justice Court next Wednesday, when point attorneys will argue whether he should be taken into custody and what bond should be set. In the meantime, he's been ordered to report to the Pima County jail for fingerprints and photographs.
The charges come amid intense legislative scrutiny of Corrections Director Dora Schriro's handling of a 15-day hostage situation at a state prison near Buckeye, but Hunter said she doubted the murder charge would affect that.
Sweet was convicted of aggravated assault for a 1994 incident in Glendale where, while fleeing police in a stolen pickup, he caused an accident and tried to steal three other cars at gunpoint. But that wasn't the first trouble for Sweet, who also has used the names Mark Headley and Timothy Van Antwerp.
He was convicted of two armed robberies in Mesa in 1983 and sentenced to more than five years in prison. He was released early but got in trouble again in 1987, when he was convicted of a burglary and sentenced to four years behind bars.
° Contact reporter L. Anne Newell at 629-9412 or at email@example.com.