Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story (click here to read the story online)
The mystery of the Lompoc PenRecent violent incidents involving federal prison correctional officers leave scores of unanswered questions
BY JEREMY THOMAS
It was foggy on Feb. 10, 2012. Correctional officer Ryan Vargas showed up for work at the Lompoc federal prison for a 6 a.m. shift. He’d been back on the job just more than a month, fresh off of an extended leave for depression and stress.
Less than two hours later, Vargas was dead, his body found inside his prison-issued patrol vehicle near a guard tower. The official stated cause: suicide by a single gunshot wound to the head.
Less than a month later, on March 8, just across town, Lompoc police entered Room 113 at the Embassy Suites Hotel just after 10 p.m. There, they discovered the body of Gary Bent, a correctional officer from a federal prison in Victorville, dead in a bathtub from a gunshot to the neck. Bent had been in town for a training session, where he met up with Timothy McNally, a Lompoc prison guard who also happened to be Vargas’ friend since childhood. Police were summoned to the scene shortly after McNally reportedly sent a text message admitting he shot Bent. The two had been drinking together, and toxicology reports indicate the presence of “bath salts” in McNally’s system. McNally later claimed he had no idea why he was playing with a loaded gun, nor how the gun went off. He was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Then on Sept. 10, police contacted a third Lompoc correctional officer—this one named Brandon Nodle—on federal prison housing land. Officers reported finding a rifle and ammunition in the trunk of his car. Nodle, records show, was experiencing hallucinations and paranoia, and was found to be under the influence of prescription medications. Police also found two air-powered rifles in his home, along with more than 200 mostly empty prescription bottles. Nodle had been seeing a psychologist for panic attacks and mental problems, and was committed to Lompoc Valley Medical Center.
The sequence of events involving the three co-workers and friends begs the question: Just what is happening at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex?
‘We just want justice for Ryan’
A native of Santa Barbara, a Lompoc High School athlete in football, and a U.S. Air Force veteran, 30-year-old Ryan Vargas started working at the federal prison after being discharged from active duty as a Vandenberg Air Force Base security guard in 2007. In his free time, he loved riding Harleys and spending time with his 5-year-old son.
“He was just a funny, nice, sweet boy who loved his little baby,” Ryan’s mother, Carole Vargas, remembered.
According to the Vargas family, Ryan was a confident, even cocky person who “used to be happy,” but started showing signs of depression after he and his wife Lynelle divorced in April 2011. Lynelle was granted custody of their son and later moved to Wyoming. To compound matters, Ryan was having personal issues with several supervisors at work.
Ryan’s father, Herb Vargas, said Ryan was a “good-looking guy” who admittedly was also a bit of “a player,” which may have led to jealousy from his supervisors.
Affidavits on file with the prison show Vargas claimed several supervisors and officers threatened him. One report details an officer allegedly telling Vargas, “I’m going to kick the shit out of you. I’m going to whoop your ass. I can’t wait to see you downtown.” The Vargas family believes supervisors “had it in for Ryan” and were trying to get him fired at the time of his death.
“These guards were completely screwing with him,” Herb said. “They were changing his shifts from night to day. He wasn’t getting sleep. He got paranoid.”
In August, Ryan moved back in with his family and was transferred to a more dangerous cellblock at work. Around this time, family members said, Ryan repeatedly alluded to having knowledge about shady goings on at the prison, but refused to go into detail, only to say he would “be a hero” if the information were ever disclosed.
After Ryan began displaying increasing paranoia and anxiety, an incident at the prison in October 2011 appeared to send him over the edge. An inmate confronted Ryan about not receiving his mail. Ryan was cornered in a cell by several prisoners and attacked. He later told family members he had pressed his panic button but didn’t receive immediate assistance. The inmate called off the assault when Ryan reminded him he’d “saved his ass” previously. A fellow guard later called Ryan to tell him they had found a Plexiglas shank near his office. After the incident, Vargas, who believed the attack to have been a setup, feared for his life and was afraid to go back to work.
“He’d say, ‘Dad, there was a hit on me. I know it,’” Herb said. “‘They’re going to kill me and make it look like a suicide.’”
Ryan’s mother, Carole, with whom Ryan was living, said her son’s personality changed dramatically after the confrontation.
“Ryan was afraid to be alone,” she said. “He was traumatized. They had homemade knives. He said, ‘I could’ve been dead.’ He wasn’t ready to go back to work.”
Shortly after the incident, in late October, Herb took his son to Cottage Hospital, where Ryan was committed for several days. He was treated for anxiety and depression, but left against the wishes of his doctors, who were concerned he was suicidal.
Medical records reveal Ryan was in a paranoid state of mind, afraid he was being followed by FBI and ICE agents and monitored on his personal computer. He was diagnosed with a mood disorder.
According to more records, Ryan began seeing Santa Maria psychologist Angeline De Guzman. He was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, and took an extended leave of absence from work, a combination of sick time and AWOL days that lasted through December 2011.
De Guzman didn’t return repeated calls for comment.
Around this time, Ryan filed a claim at the prison for workers’ compensation. The prison denied the claim. Ryan then went to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he filed a compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The claim was still being processed at the time of his death.
His family said that during his extended leave of absence, prison officials were telling Ryan he had no more sick time left and threatened to fire him if he didn’t come back soon.
Ryan returned to work in late December, with restrictions from his physician. In the days before his death, family and friends say, he was showing signs of improvement, laughing, joking, and appearing optimistic. He had just received clearance from the prison for a week off to visit with his son.
“He was just too excited for when his son was coming,” said Ryan’s ex-wife, Lynelle Beltran-Hubert, who still spoke to Ryan by phone every day. “He loved his son more than anybody in this world. He wouldn’t have left him. It didn’t add up.”
The night before his death, family members said, one of Ryan’s supervisors called and changed his shift and post, demanding that he show up at 6 a.m. Ryan was under orders not to be around firearms, the family said, yet he was assigned to the armed post.
“My son went in around 5:30 a.m.,” Herb recalled. “He was checking on his leave. He needed to pick up his son from the airport and was going to be with him for a week. ... Everything was cleared, and he’d get to see his son. Next thing you know, he’s dead.”
According to prison spokeswoman Felicia Ponce, because Ryan’s death occurred on federal land, the FBI took over the official investigation. However, according to multiple knowledgeable sources, the prison also had its own internal investigator at the scene. Within hours, the Lompoc federal prison warden’s office issued a statement saying the cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
From the outset, family members said, prison officials were secretive about the circumstances of Ryan’s death and that detectives told the family right away it was a “clear-cut case” of suicide, insisting there was only one gunshot. Prison staffers, however, described hearing two shots, and multiple people involved with the case said investigators later revised their version of events, saying there was another bullet embedded in the dashboard of the vehicle.
Prison representatives also reportedly told the family they could view the body at a Lompoc mortuary the day of his death. Instead, when members got to the mortuary, they were told the Santa Barbara County Coroner had taken the body to Santa Barbara for further investigation. They would not see their son’s body for another five days.
The county never performed an autopsy on Ryan’s body. According to the coroner’s office, an autopsy wasn’t necessary in this case because “the cause of death was obvious.” When Herb was finally able to view his son’s body at the morgue, he took photos and saw what he believed to be a peculiar indentation on the top of his son’s skull (which some attribute to the truck’s steering wheel), as well as what he perceived to be cuts and scratches indicating a struggle.
The family funded its own autopsy, which didn’t happen until Feb. 22. By that time, Herb said, Ryan’s body had been scrubbed from head to toe for burial. The independent autopsy determined Ryan’s cause of death to be a single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His military funeral was held on Feb. 27.
Throughout the ordeal, Lompoc prison warden Linda Sanders refused to meet with the Vargases, they said.
To this day, many people in the family don’t believe the reported conclusions regarding Ryan’s death. At the very least, they claim, prison administrators rushed him back to work before he was ready. They also insist investigators didn’t follow proper protocol, and they’re pursuing an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Ryan’s death.
“We just want justice for Ryan,” said his half-brother, Tucker Smith.
The family has numerous questions: What was Ryan doing on an armed shift when he wasn’t supposed to be near firearms? Why didn’t investigators ever conduct an autopsy? Why were they initially told there was only one gunshot, when, as witnesses confirmed, there were two? Why, after being told it was a “cut-and-dry” suicide, were they not allowed to see his body for five days? Why were the vehicle Ryan was in and the clothes he was wearing at the time cleaned up so soon after his death? Why was Ryan’s vehicle searched, and why were his personal items, including his wallet and cell phone, taken from his car and never returned to the family?
Unsatisfied with the explanations they were getting from prison officials, the family hired a local attorney, who enlisted a retired FBI agent named Tom Parker to look into the case.
After examining the vehicle and Ryan’s body, and speaking with guards, Parker concluded Ryan’s death was consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. However, he said, Ryan’s psychological issues might have been exacerbated by the treatment he was getting from his superiors, who Parker said “used him as a whipping boy.”
“If there was anything that even bordered on a conspiracy, it was basically that his supervisor, and a couple of other correctional officers, were aligned with the supervisor, [and] had decided they were going to give him a tough time,” Parker said. “From what I know, that was ongoing, and was probably the triggering event.”
Prison management also made a mistake, Parker said, in putting Ryan right back in a position requiring the use of weapons so soon after returning.
“They really didn’t have adequate training in terms of how people like Ryan should be handled,” Parker said. “I don’t know if it was their way of virtually punishing him or what, but that’s an unusual move in the working world, especially when you’ve got people who carry firearms. If there’s any hint at all of any mental issues, you take the firearm away and put them into a desk job.”
Parker contends the investigators’ handling of the shooting scene was “not a professional response.” Especially troubling, he said, was the way Ryan’s prison vehicle was immediately cleaned, and his personal car entered without a search warrant and with no record left of what was taken.
“There wasn’t a lot of effort made to preserve the evidence where the shooting occurred,” Parker said. “It was just real poor police practice, the way they did that.”
The prison guard who discovered Ryan’s body—and was almost certainly the last person to talk to him—spoke to the Sun under the condition of anonymity. He said the other correctional officers and he knew Ryan as a “happy guy” who liked to brag about his exploits. But in the two weeks before his death, they noticed significant changes in his behavior. He was quiet and “a little withdrawn.”
The morning of Ryan’s death, the guard who spoke with the Sun had two hours left on his post when Ryan arrived. Ryan “seemed normal,” he said, chatting and joking around. But after the guard asked what Ryan had bid for a post for the upcoming quarter, Ryan said he hadn’t picked anything. The guard then noticed “something was off.”
“I asked, ‘Hey, Vargas, are you all right, man?’” he said. “He shook his head like, ‘I’m all right.’ Then I asked him if anything was going on. He said, ‘Everything’s cool.’ He drove away, and that’s the last thing we said to each other.”
The guard was handling the perimeter on the other side of the prison and said he didn’t hear the gunshots. When he first drove by Ryan’s car, he explained, he didn’t notice anything odd because he had his eyes trained on the prison. The second time around, however, he saw Ryan slumped forward, appearing to be either asleep or unconscious. When he saw the blood, he called for assistance and walked around to the other side of the vehicle, where he saw the prison-issued handgun in Ryan’s hand.
The officer said he’s heard conspiracy theories about Ryan’s death, but that he personally saw no evidence of anything untoward at the scene. He believes Ryan’s death was, in fact, a suicide.
“It was really stressful, and he thought he didn’t get the help that he really needed,” the guard said. “It’s a sad situation. I liked Vargas. I don’t think somebody was out to get him.”
A week before Ryan’s death, he said, the prison conducted a training session in suicide awareness, attended by Ryan, as well as officers McNally and Nodle. The guard didn’t know Ryan was having any mental issues until the session. When another officer and he tried to get him to hang out with them during breaks, Ryan only wanted to be alone.
“His whole personality changed,” he said. “He didn’t want to do anything with anybody. Occasionally, he would come back and be joking around, but we knew Vargas wasn’t himself.”
At the time, the officer said, fellow guards didn’t realize how bad Ryan’s situation was because Nodle looked to be “in worse shape.” After Ryan’s death, the guard said, morale dropped and many staff members took time off. While he said he tries to have empathy with prison administration—they may have lacked the experience to handle the situation—he thinks they hold some responsibility for bringing Ryan in sooner than they should have.
“I think he was rushed back,” the guard said. “But, then again, who was equipped to make that call? From what I was told, they threatened the guy with his job if he didn’t come back, and that person should be held accountable for that.
“I’m pretty sure whoever made that call is probably regretting it right now,” he added.
A warden (re)moved
Immediately after Ryan’s death, Michael Meserve, the western regional vice president for the Federal Prison Council, the union representing the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ staff, flew in from Hawaii to speak with the Vargas family, prison staff, and local union leaders.
Two days before Ryan died, Meserve said, Ryan called an associate of his and left a voicemail asking for help with work-related stress and workers’ compensation. The representative wasn’t able to return the call in time.
Once in town, Meserve began hearing of the events leading up to Ryan’s death, including how supervisors appeared to have pressured him to return to work. Furthermore, Meserve discovered, a prison captain had issued orders to keep Ryan away from an armed post—but inexplicably, someone with whom Vargas had reportedly had prior run-ins had adjusted the roster, putting Ryan on a mobile patrol requiring the use of firearms.
“He never should’ve been put on an armed post, and that was made clear by the captain,” Meserve said. “They knew he was having a very hard time. They knew he was in crisis, and they chose to put him in jeopardy anyway. Whether it was intentional or negligence, I think there’s a level of vicarious responsibility for the agency.”
Even if it was a case of Ryan having PTSD issues and taking his own life, Meserve said, the agency’s lack of transparency and disregard in dealing with the Vargas family “cast a sinister pall” over the entire situation. Witnesses were contradicting the prison’s version of events, he said, which made the family feel as if they were being deliberately misled. Meanwhile, the prison was in self-protection mode and “closed up tighter than a clam.”
“It’s really terrible the way all of this was mishandled by the agency,” Meserve said. “I know a lot of it wasn’t intentional, but it’s as if the agency, at every fork in the road, took the wrong turn. They did everything wrong, right before and following the tragedy. They took the worst option every time they had an option to take.”
Soledad Kennedy, a veteran prison guard and union advocate for correctional officers at Lompoc, said Ryan had come to her multiple times prior to his death, claiming harassment from his superiors. While she believes Ryan did commit suicide, she feels prison officials had a hand in pushing him to that point.
“The harassment came strictly from management. They kept talking to him and telling him, ‘You better come back to work or you’re going to lose your job,’” she alleged. “They knew he was under stress. They knew he was going through some mental issues, and yet it was like they didn’t care. They wanted him back to work.”
Kennedy, who handled issues related to working conditions, said she told prison administration that Ryan wasn’t ready to return, and that he should either be placed on administrative leave or, if he had to come back, be given a job inside the prison where he could be closely monitored. Kennedy said she was never informed of Ryan’s assignment to an armed patrol until after the fact.
“I told the agency, you are all held responsible for this death,” Kennedy said. “Instead of working for him, they were working against him … .”
When questioned about the treatment Ryan received from his superiors and the circumstances preceding his death, prison spokeswoman Ponce e-mailed a statement to theSun: “Mr. Vargas was a valuable member of our staff and we were saddened by his untimely death. The Bureau of Prisons provides all staff and their immediate family access to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to assist employees with any extraordinary circumstances they encounter. Whether Mr. Vargas chose to take advantage of those resources is unknown.”
In the wake of Ryan’s death, policies at the prison regarding treatment of its correctional officers didn’t immediately change, Kennedy said. Timothy McNally—a decorated Army veteran and team leader in Iraq who had been previously diagnosed with PTSD—faced similar issues.
Kennedy claims McNally also sought worker’s compensation for PTSD. Prior to the Bent shooting, McNally had e-mailed her on several occasions, showing his rising anger with his superiors. Kennedy said she warned prison officials to help McNally—or risk another tragedy.
Instead, McNally, who was under federal investigation for alleged excessive force on an inmate, was “taunted and belittled” and told he was going to be indicted, according to Kennedy and Meserve. Supervisors moved McNally from a private office, where he monitored phone calls, to a lobby near the warden’s office in full view of staff, like “a kid with a dunce cap on his head,” they said. He stayed at that post until the death of Gary Bent, a friend of McNally’s who, according to court documents, McNally admitted to shooting.
Meserve believes McNally was already under “tremendous stress,” and instead of placing him on administrative leave, as is usual for law enforcement agents under investigation, prison officials publicly humiliated him, exacerbating his mental condition.
“They threw him under the bus,” Meserve said. “The agency was punishing him.”
After McNally, Kennedy said, things at the prison “got messy.” With Meserve taking the lead, she said, she and the union worked to force warden Sanders out.
Incensed by the “reprehensible” way prison officials had dealt with the Vargas family, Meserve met twice with the warden to discuss how he felt the situation could’ve been handled differently. He felt Sanders was defiant.
“She was extremely defensive when I questioned the administration as to why they were handling it so poorly, especially in dealing with the family,” Meserve recalled. “She was very rude to me and the union reps who were with me. … She was cold, callous, and unsympathetic. I was appalled by that.”
Meserve then appealed to the western regional director of the Bureau of Prisons, Robert McFadden, to tell him how, in his mind, the prison administration had mishandled Ryan’s case and had caused harm to his family. Sanders, he said, was “not welcome in the community” and had lost the public’s trust.
Meserve then met face to face with the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, and the agency’s assistant director of human resources. He told Samuels about the agency’s response, and what he called the “disregard” the warden had showed the family. He suggested it was time for Sanders to go.
In June, within a month of the meeting, Lompoc prison officials released a statement saying Sanders had left her job for an opportunity to return home and become warden at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. Union reps don’t think the move was entirely voluntary.
Attempts to reach Sanders for comment were directed to the western region of the Bureau of Prisons, which in turn directed questions to the Lompoc prison.
In a prepared statement, prison spokeswoman Ponce gave a conflicting account of how the move transpired:
“Warden Sanders’ decision to apply for the Warden’s position at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Mo. and her subsequent selection were not related to the events surrounding the death of Officer Vargas or the arrest of Officer McNally,” Ponce said in an e-mail. “The selection of Warden Sanders was simply in line with the normal succession planning the Bureau of Prisons undergoes when filling vacant positions.”
An institution moves forward
In September of this year, Richard B. Ives—a former warden at a U.S. penitentiary in Kentucky and an employee of the Lompoc prison from 1987 to 1994—replaced Sanders as warden.
Kennedy called Ives “more of a people person” and said she believes things have gotten better for the prison’s officers since Sanders’ departure. Officials are starting to listen, she explained, but she believes it shouldn’t have taken three tragic incidents to get their attention. The administration should’ve seen the signs, she said—especially in the cases of Vargas and McNally—and kept a close watch on both men.
“We have a lot of veterans that still have PTSD, and it’s not as easy to shake it off as a lot of them think,” Kennedy said. “The rage was there; the inner fight, the demons they had inside were there. They just released it in other ways.”
The anonymous correctional officer at Lompoc who talked to the Sun, an Iraq veteran himself, estimated that 70 to 80 percent of his fellow guards at the prison are former military, and many exhibit some type of PTSD. He said he believed Sanders and other prison administrators were “complacent” about the staff’s needs. He said 2012 has been “a really weird year.”
“If we were to take all the guys going through any type of depression off the line, it would be a lot of people,” he said. “I’ve never been in a place where so many people have so many issues. Even in the military, it wasn’t at the level as at this prison.”
Lompoc prison spokeswoman Ponce addressed the prison’s difficult year in an e-mail: “Although the events of this year have been unusual for FCC Lompoc, it is not indicative of the hard working staff who come to work each day and who are committed to the Bureau of Prisons’ core values of Correctional Excellence, Respect, and Integrity. We strive to provide a safe environment for both staff and inmates.”
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Sun for data on medical leaves taken by guards at Lompoc and two other similar-sized facilities in the western region was still being processed as of press time.
According to Meserve, the problems in the federal prison system aren’t isolated to Lompoc. The national agency has suffered through several staff suicides—as many as seven between December 2011 and June 2012. System-wide, since December, there have been three times more suicides of prison staff than inmates—yet, as Meserve pointed out, there are five times more inmates than staff in the prison system. Vargas and McNally, he said, reflect an “agency culture” that has, for the past decade, turned a blind eye to stress disorders in its staff members.
“They’re coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they need a job,” Meserve said, “and we want veterans. They make great corrections officers. We bring them in, but we tend to want them to be 100-percent whole, unaffected people with no issues, even though they’re returning from war.”
Perhaps spurred by the cases of Vargas, McNally, and others, the Bureau of Prisons in April brought forth plans to implement a peer-monitoring program for veterans, Meserve said. Volunteers with backgrounds in military service will be teamed up with new hires from the military, and keep in close contact throughout their employment.
In Meserve’s opinion, the program represents a positive step—but it comes a little too late.
“The agency failed Ryan Vargas. And I think Tim McNally, who had issues of his own—they failed him as well in my opinion,” he said. “If they had handled [Vargas] properly, as an employee in crisis, he would probably still be alive today. And I believe if they’d handled Tim McNally properly, as a war veteran with PTSD, and not gone out of their way to put him on display, I think that tragedy may not have happened.”
Still dealing with their grief, the Vargas family has sent out letters to various elected officials, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, asking for help. Unfortunately for them, many unanswered questions remain. Ryan’s ex-wife Lynelle said due to the confusion she still hasn’t received Ryan’s death benefits, and the family still hasn’t been allowed to retrieve Ryan’s personal effects taken from his car by investigators.
They said they recently contacted the FBI about the circumstances of Ryan’s death and were told the bureau is currently looking into the matter. A spokesperson for the FBI office in Los Angeles would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. However, Lompoc prison spokeswoman Ponce did reveal in an e-mail that the “unfortunate death of Ryan Vargas is still being investigated by the FBI.” She provided no further details.
As for McNally, he’s currently sitting in a cell in Santa Barbara County Jail, awaiting his trial for murder, which could begin early next year. Judge Patricia Kelly denied a motion by McNally’s attorney, Michael Scott, to have the charge reduced to involuntary manslaughter in September. McNally could not be reached for comment.
Nodle, who didn’t return calls from the Sun, has undergone a psychiatric evaluation and is currently on administrative leave from the prison. He’s been charged with one felony count of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs and is scheduled to appear in court in December.
Send comments to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at email@example.com.