In what the coroner is calling an unprecedented prison “mass murder,” four inmates were lured last week into a cell one at a time and strangled with an electrical cord and a broomstick tourniquet, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Prison video of Friday morning’s killings at Kirkland Correctional Institution shows three prisoners going into the cell where the bodies were found and two emerging, on four different occasions, sources familiar with the investigation told The State newspaper Monday.
The investigation of the deaths by the State Law Enforcement Division remains active, so spokesman Thom Berry declined to discuss specifics of the case. “We’re still in the process of confirming and obtaining information,” Berry said.
Two convicted murderers have confessed to killing Jimmy Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and William Scruggs, 44, according to SLED warrants. The inmates charged with their deaths are Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, and Denver Jordan Simmons, 35. Each is serving life sentences on murder charges.
The warrants state that Philip and Simmons acted together. The documents do not state how the men lured fellow inmates into the same cell.
“I’m trying to think back to even prison riots and I can’t think of this many (prisoner deaths),” Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said Monday of his 38 years on the job. The inmates died during a 30-minute period beginning at 10 a.m. Friday, Watts said.
“They were individuals targeted by the other two inmates,” the coroner said. “I don’t really know of a motive at this time.”
Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling said he knows of no precedent for so many inmate deaths at one time. “This is not something we’ve seen in this department before, and that’s coming from people that have been here a long time.”
Stirling referred questions about the facts of the case to SLED.
Watts said he has not seen the statements the convicted killers made, but warrants released by SLED state that both men confessed to each of the homicides. The surveillance video does not capture the deaths, but part of the crimes were recorded and reviewed by SLED agents, according to the warrants.
Ham was beaten with a broken broomstick and stabbed with it during the strangulation, the warrants state. Ham was to be released from prison later this year after serving since 2008 on a sentence for aggravated assault and battery, grand larceny and two counts of burglary in Darlington County.
Kelley was serving time on aggravated assault and battery in Cherokee County. Kelley initially was charged with attempted murder in the stabbing of his 13-year-old stepson, according to The Gaffney Ledger’s reporting in 2013. The charge was reduced as part of a plea agreement, the newspaper said.
King was imprisoned after Greenville County convictions for two counts of burglary, breaking into a vehicle, vehicle thefts and several larcenies. He was to be released in 2020 and had no disciplinary violations.
Scruggs was in for life in the abduction and shooting death of a disabled veteran in Anderson County, according to the Associated Press.
Watts has ruled their deaths as “strangulation by ligature.”
Their assailants are facing multiple murder charges, which under state law is grounds for a death penalty case.
The two are serving time for similar, though separate, crimes: Killing a woman and a child.
Philips was charged in the 2013 slayings in Berkeley County of his girlfriend, 26, and her 8-year-old daughter, according to media reports. He pleaded guilty in exchange for a life without parole agreement, clerk of court records show.
Simmons pleaded to two life sentences in the 2007 Colleton County killings of 45-year-old Sheila Dodd and her 13-year-old son, according to Lowcountry media.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and a member of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said Monday she hopes the panel will hold a hearing to look into the deaths.
“I’m very concerned about that ... as to how four people got murdered in 30 minutes ... and nobody (corrections officers) knew that,” Shealy said.