Richard Conner is among the state's most dangerous inmates, a convicted murderer who was locked up in solitary confinement at Illinois' only super-maximum security prison, where the "worst of the worst" are held.
But after nearly killing himself in a suicide attempt, he was moved for medical treatment to another prison, Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. For the first time in more than two years, he was placed in a cell with another inmate, Jameson Leezer, a petty criminal and prison lightweight who had earlier been transferred to maximum-security Stateville because of a rules violation.
Just two weeks later, on April 2, Leezer was found strangled in his cell. He was only 16 days from his scheduled release.
The slaying highlights a perilous flaw in how non-violent offenders sent to maximum-security prisons for disciplinary infractions have been locked up in the same cells with predatory inmates who are serving long sentences and have nothing to lose.
Last month the Tribune chronicled a similar homicide in 2004 in another state prison. In that case, corrections officials housed Corey Fox, a convicted murderer with a history of psychotic behavior and violence behind bars, with Joshua Daczewitz, a passive, first-time inmate. Two months later, Fox strangled Daczewitz after guards at Menard Correctional Center allegedly ignored his threat that he would "erase" his cellmate if he wasn't moved.
The Tribune story prompted top corrections officials to re-examine inmate transfer and screening procedures to try to prevent further tragedies. Officials also cited Leezer's slaying in announcing the review.
Corrections officials acknowledge they are investigating how Conner and Leezer ended up in the same cell at Stateville. Will County prosecutors have yet to file charges in the slaying, but Conner remains the only suspect, law-enforcement sources said.
"We are very concerned how these two inmates were housed together, and our expectation is that our investigation will address this issue," said Sergio Molina, executive chief of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
A prison document obtained by the Tribune shows that corrections authorities had classified Leezer as "vulnerable," meaning he should have been kept apart from dangerous inmates.
"I would want to know if there was sufficient grounds -- meaning a violent incident or some other serious security risk -- to justify transferring him to Stateville," Charles Fasano of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, said of Leezer. "But once he's there, he should not have been celled with an inmate with a violent history."
In the aftermath of Leezer's slaying, prison authorities have ordered inmates like Conner who are temporarily moved from the super-max Tamms Correctional Center to one of the state's maximum-security prisons for court appearances or other reasons to be kept in solitary confinement, the Tribune has learned. Stateville would actually hold them at a facility next door.
"Tamms Offenders shall always, without exception, be celled singly," said an internal memo issued May 11 at Stateville.
Leezer's mother, Claudia, who lives in Largo, Fla., said she was devastated by the slaying of her only child. She said two Largo police officers and a social worker came to her home to tell her of the death.
"Sometimes I walk around and scream a lot," said the mother, who also lost her husband four years ago.
The family said it has been stonewalled by prison authorities about the circumstances of Leezer's death.
"I want to find out how he was celled with a convicted murderer," said Leezer's uncle, William.
Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the union representing corrections staff in Illinois prisons, said Leezer's slaying underscores concerns that chronic overcrowding has forced officials to "double-cell" even the most violent offenders, uncommon before the late 1990s. Even segregation units, traditionally used to isolate unruly inmates, are full -- with two inmates sharing most of the cells.
Conner was moved into Leezer's cell, F226, three months after arriving at Stateville. Several correctional officers and other staffers say prison officials should have known better.
Conner, 38, had a violent history and virtually no chance of ever getting out of prison, while Leezer, 37, had a non-violent background and was near the end of his 5-year sentence for stealing a car. Both shared a history of mental illness.
Several inmates told the Tribune that Conner and Leezer had asked guards to be separated. Several Stateville employees also said Leezer, who was listed by authorities as a white supremacist gang member, protested when Conner, an African-American, was placed in his cell.
The only child of adoptive parents, Leezer had a troubled youth in suburban Bolingbrook and Lisle and was first locked up as a young teen for starting a fire, his family said. A drug abuser who also spent time in psychiatric hospitals, Leezer was incarcerated four times since 1992 on burglary and theft convictions, court records show.
Leezer was housed mostly in medium-security prisons even though he was sent to segregation eight times over the years for various infractions. By contrast, Conner spent the past 16 years in maximum security or the state's super-max prison, according to interviews and records.
Born on Chicago's South Side, Conner was sent to Alabama as a child to live with his aunt after his mother was shot dead by an unknown assailant in 1975 outside the grocery where she worked. He returned to Chicago a decade later to live with his father in public housing, joined the Four Corner Hustlers street gang and became a drug user and dealer, according to court records.
In 1991, Conner walked into a West Side jewelry store, pulled a handgun and announced, "I'm going to kill you," the records show. He then fatally shot a store clerk and fled with $200 in cash plus jewelry. He was convicted and sentenced to life.
Conner told counselors that he suffered from chronic depression because of his mother's slaying, according to the records.
"He mentioned it a couple of times -- that he wanted to be with our mother and that he would hear these voices on occasion," said Conner's sister, Lola. "I knew he was depressed."
Conner was transferred to the super-max Tamms in August 2006 as punishment for assaulting a prison staffer. Last December, after he injured his kidneys while trying to hang himself, he was sent to Stateville, one of only two Illinois prisons with dialysis treatment.
After a Tribune reporter contacted Conner for a story about conditions in Tamms, he wrote back in late January, mentioning among other things that he heard voices "telling me to kill myself and to hurt others."
Months earlier, Leezer had been transferred from a "secure-medium-security" prison to Stateville's famous F-House, a four-story, circular structure, because of a rules infraction. Corrections officials refused to disclose the violation.
Conner was placed in Leezer's 8-by-12-foot cell March 19, according to a corrections source. Since they were in segregation, the two inmates were usually confined in their cell for 23 hours a day, even eating their meals there.
Jaia Hicks, a dialysis nurse at Stateville, said officials were trying to ship Conner back to Tamms but had difficulty finding a medical facility near the Downstate prison willing to treat him.
In a letter to the Tribune, Claxton Williams, a Stateville inmate who said he lived in F-House at the time, alleged that Conner and Leezer "literally begged ... security to move/separate them because they could not get along."
One Stateville officer said he last saw Leezer alive about 6 p.m. April 1 as he and Conner were escorted back to their cell for the night after taking showers.
The next day, a prison guard making his morning rounds found Leezer strangled in his bunk.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun