Lucasville: No closure for slain guard's son (2022)

Staff Writer| The Columbus Dispatch

Within moments of learning that rioting inmates had wrapped his father's body in a sheet and discarded it in the prison yard, Bobby Vallandingham wanted to do what the authorities wouldn't.

Rage welling up in the 19-year-old told him to climb the Lucasville prison's razor-wire fences and avenge his father's death.

But he couldn't get inside and was left with the haunting image of his dad's face covered by a body bag.

Two decades later, the son of Robert Vallandingham, the only prison corrections officer killed in what remains the longest prison siege in U.S. history, is still wrestling with feelings of trying to forgive but wanting to avenge.

The veins in his arms swell and his stare hardens when he says that his children will never know their grandfather. In the next breath, he glances toward the sky and lets out a deep sigh, confessing that he has tried to forgive because he didn't want his children to see him hate so much.

"I wanted those guys dead right there, right then," said Bobby, now 39. "And for the ones on Death Row, I still want them dead. I carried around so much hate with me for years, and I've tried my best to spit that out. My dad's death probably saved others from dying back then, but it doesn't make it any easier."

As the 20th anniversary of the Lucasville prison riot approaches on Thursday, few people, if any, are haunted by it more than Bobby. Until last week, he had never publicly spoken of the prison uprising or his father's death.

That Easter riot on April 11, 1993, turned into an 11-day standoff as inmates virtually destroyed the interior of an entire maximum-security cell block, killed nine fellow inmates and strangled Robert Vallandingham.

Ultimately, 47 inmates were convicted of violent crimes committed during those days. Five were sentenced to death, including four of the seven convicted for their roles in the slaying of the respected and well-liked guard.

But what makes it harder for Bobby and his family is that the riot leaders on Death Row remain alive with no execution dates in sight.

Carlos Sanders, the leader of the Sunni Muslim inmates who has changed his name to Siddique Abdullah Hasan; his underling, James Were; and members of the white supremacy gang the Aryan Brotherhood, Jason Robb and George Skatzes, all sit in cells while their cases drag through the federal courts.

"Unfortunately, I'm used to the pace in federal courts," said lead Lucasville prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, an assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County who has tried dozens of death-penalty cases. "So far, their convictions have been affirmed. They are where they belong, and that's a positive."

Another riot leader, Anthony Lavelle, who headed the Black Gangster Disciples inside the Lucasville prison, became a star witness for the prosecution and was given a deal that offered freedom. His 25-year sentence expires in six years, but he has a 2017 date with the parole board.

Piepmeier said he will object to Lavelle serving any less than 25 years.

But that doesn't make it easier for Bobby, who lives near Wheelersburg, not far from the Ohio River, with his wife and four children.

He still blames the entire corrections system, and a prison spokeswoman in particular, for provoking the inmates. And he ultimately blames the inmates for what happened to his father.

Bobby, who works as a mechanic for a chemical company, also doesn't understand how a system that has justice in its title can allow his dad's killers to remain alive on Death Row, not to mention possibly setting a riot leader free in a few years.

"The convictions were supposed to end this, but it doesn't work like that for everyone," Bobby said. "Our justice system is crazy, and making it worse is that I am paying taxes to help keep them alive."

Uneasy feeling

Before he left for the second-shift duty on Easter in 1993, Robert Vallandingham told his family that he was grateful to have the following two days off work. He told them he had an uneasy feeling that something was brewing at the state's only maximum-security prison.

Robert typically didn't worry about much, either inside or outside the prison walls. He was well-liked on both sides.

The native of Minford, just east of Lucasville in Scioto County, grew up loving sports and playing football, basketball and baseball in high school. He was known as a jokester, a loving husband to his wife, Peggy, and a proud father who always had a close relationship with his son, Bobby.

The father and son played ball in the yard, watched their favorite teams on TV and spent endless hours working on cars. That bonding time in the garage also was a learning experience that ultimately led Bobby to become a mechanic. His father had unwittingly helped provide the skills Bobby needed to make a living.

Robert also was proud when Bobby enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school.

"I wanted to serve my country, but I guess part of it was to show my dad I could be my own man and make him proud," Bobby said.

Bobby was at Naval Air Station Alameda in California when his dad reported for work that Easter.

About an hour into Robert's shift, his premonition that something was awry inside the prison came true.

"He just knew there was something not right in there," Bobby said.

Perfect storm

Easter Day in 1993 was the first true spring day of the year, with dazzling sunshine and T-shirt temperatures. That afternoon, about 450 inmates from L Block at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility milled about outside, played baseball or lifted weights in the recreation yard.

Few knew of what was to come: The Sunni Muslims had planned an uprising in retaliation for forced tuberculosis testing scheduled for the following day. Moments before rec time ended, the Muslims told leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood about the plan.

As the inmates filed back into the cell block, chaos erupted. They overtook a guard with keys and seized control. They armed themselves with weight-lifting bars and baseball bats and eventually, the guards' only weapons - their batons.

It was a perfect storm. Everything that could go wrong did: short staffing because of the holiday, inmate overcrowding, poor communication systems, structurally-defective safe havens for guards, and a cache of recreation items that became deadly weapons.

By day's end, seven inmates were dead, four badly injured guards had been freed, eight others had been captured and taken hostage, and Ohio prisons officials knew their entire system was in disarray. Two other inmates would later be killed during the surrender.

Bobby learned of the riot while working as a mechanic on his naval base and was flown back on the riot's second day. He shuttled between his own family and other guards' family members waiting out the siege at a school across the road from the prison.

He thought his dad was locked in a safe room inside the prison and wouldn't be in danger.

"I fully planned on giving my dad a hug when the thing ended," Bobby said. "I thought we would be able to spend some time together before I had to report back for duty."

Five days into the siege, tensions had escalated both inside and out. Then-Gov. George V. Voinovich faced mounting pressure to storm the prison.

Inside the cell block, inmates sat in darkness and without running water. They wrote on a bedsheet that a guard would be killed if their demands for electricity and water were not met. They draped that sheet for all - including a rapidly growing crowd of reporters - to see.

A prison spokeswoman dismissed the threat as part of the language of negotiation. Hours later, Robert's body was dumped in the recreation yard.

The son named in his honor went numb. Then the rage set in.

Among the worst parts was not knowing why his father had been the one inmates chose to kill. To this day, that question has never truly been answered.

"For the next several years, I lived with hate," Bobby said.

Seeking justice

In February of 1999, Bobby stood outside the Lucasville prison, not far from where the inmates dropped his dad's body, and waited for word that Wilford Berry was dead.

Bobby stood shoulder to shoulder with anti-death-penalty protesters and held a makeshift sign that read: "Has anyone in your family ever been murdered?"

It was almost six years after the Lucasville riot and Berry, a convicted murderer, had no connection to the riot or Robert Vallandingham's death. Bobby simply wanted to show his support for the death penalty. After learning of Berry's death that night, he told reporters: "Now, maybe there's a chance for the guys who killed my dad" to be executed.

Bobby decided to stay away from future executions because he feared a confrontation with protesters, but others in his family continued to crusade for the punishment.

Until his slaying, Robert's parents had been ambivalent about the death penalty. But Wanda and Homer Vallandingham channeled their grief and rage into seeking justice, not just for their son but for all murder victims and their families.

Just days after the riot ended, Wanda, a Minford homemaker, began circulating petitions calling on Voinovich to enforce the death penalty. When she personally delivered the petition to the governor weeks later, she had collected 26,000 signatures.

The first name on that list was that of her grandson Bobby.

She and her husband attended every trial, often sitting in the front row holding a 5x7 photo of their son wearing a tuxedo and a wide grin as jurors were shown gruesome pictures of the lifeless guard dressed in an inmate's clothing.

At the conclusion of the trials, Wanda Vallandingham often would approach jurors to thank them and show them the good picture of her son. She did not want them to remember him as a corpse.

She advocated for safer prisons and for making the killing of a prison guard a capital offense.

When she died on July 31, 1998, at age 72, prisons director Reginald A. Wilkinson ordered that flags at the Lucasville prison be flown at half staff in her honor. Her husband died a year later.

Bobby said his grandmother gave him the strength he needed to help overcome his rage and channel it into living the kind of life his dad would have wanted him to have.

"She was our hero after all of this happened," Bobby said.

Chasing closure

Bobby couldn't get into the prison to confront the inmates who took his father, but he vows to be there when each one takes his last breath.

"If I'm alive, I will be there; I promise you that," Bobby said. "But truth is, I wish they weren't going to be executed by being put to sleep. I wish they could experience the same thing they did to my dad."

The wheels of justice turn painfully slowly because of a seemingly endless stream of judicial appeals.

In Ohio, inmates spend an average of 16½ years on Death Row before execution. Sanders, the last of the riot leaders to be convicted, has been on Death Row for more than 17 years.

But more than 100 other convicted murderers have been waiting longer. Two men have been on Death Row for nearly 31 years.

"In a murder, there's never such thing as justice," said Michael Hensley, a former Lucasville guard who was held hostage for the duration of the siege.

Though mostly blindfolded throughout the ordeal, Hensley listened and stored every bit of information he could. His solid memory of events helped ensure that Sanders and the others were sentenced to death - a punishment he opposes except in cases involving children.

He testified at trial after trial, not for vengeance but to learn the truth.

Asked 20 years later whether he found it, Hensley said, "Not all of it; hell no!"

When judgment day does come, Hensley said, he has no intention of attending the executions - unless an inmate invites him.

But Bobby will be there.

He isn't sure whether the executions will bring closure.

He still wants vengeance, the kind he couldn't get outside that prison fence.

And justice for his father and family.

Then, maybe he can truly forgive. | @MikeWagner48 | @JRiep

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