Prison Sgt. Meggan Callahan, who authorities say was killed in an attack by an inmate Wednesday evening, was responding to a fire that had been set inside Bertie Correctional Institution when she was assaulted.
Sources say she was beaten with the fire extinguisher she had brought to douse the fire.
Inmate Craig Wissink, who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 2004, is suspected of attacking Callahan at the eastern North Carolina prison, according to the state Department of Public Safety. He has been charged with first degree murder in connection with Callahan’s death.
Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday ordered all North Carolina flags at state facilities to be lowered to half-staff in tribute to Callahan.
Hired to work for the prisons in 2012, Callahan, 29, was promoted to sergeant in February 2016.
She worked in a job that carries the constant risk of death and serious injury. Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year.
Statewide, there were 1,160 assaults on state prison staff in 2016 – up from 1,136 the previous year, state figures show.
In 2015, another officer at Bertie – Marvin Garris, Jr. – sustained serious injuries to his eyes, head and face after an inmate attacked him. Garris and another officer were escorting 10 inmates out of a cell block and into a medical unit when the assault occurred, police say.
Inmate William Allen, Jr., 28, has been charged in that attack. He is serving time for second degree murder and armed robbery.
In another 2015 case, an inmate at Bertie stabbed a prison staff member with a homemade weapon. Keisha Barnes, a correctional programs supervisor at Bertie, was in a sergeant’s office when inmate Joseph Gray entered and stabbed her, authorities say. Gray has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.
Housing 1,500 inmates, Bertie is near the coast, more than 250 miles east of Charlotte.
Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year.
The danger to officers is highest at Bertie and the state’s other large maximum security prisons, officers say. In one month alone – November 2014 – inmates committed 13 assaults on staff members at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte.
Callahan was attacked at about 5:30 p.m. as she responded to a fire that had been set inside the prison, sources say. She died less than an hour later, state officials say.
The State Bureau of Investigation and Windsor Police are investigating.
State Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said the prison system would cooperate with the law enforcement investigation into Callahan’s death, and conduct its own investigation as well.
Katie Overton, who had known Callahan since middle school, said that what she cherished most about getting together with her friend was the laughter. Callahan was always making silly faces, joking and doing her utmost to brighten her friends’ spirits.
“She loved to make people happy,” Overton said. “I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like her. She was one of those people you were just drawn to.”
Overton remembers having a bad day at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, when – out from behind hallway lockers – Callahan suddenly jumped in front of her and shouted her name. Instantly, the two were consumed with laughter.
Soon after Callahan started working at the prison, Overton recalls telling her: “You’ve got to be careful. There are some crazy people in there.”
As usual, her friend responded with a laugh. “I dare one of them to mess with me!” Overton recalls her saying.
“It’s so hard to believe someone would do this to her, of all people,” Overton said.
Ron Perry, a former prison captain at Bertie who supervised Callahan, described her as smart, ambitious and quick-witted. “Once you met her, you were a friend,” Perry said. “… She just had a love for life.”
Callahan “was always smiling,” said Ricky Nixon, a landlord who owned the house in Edenton where she lived.
“She was a very sweet lady,” Nixon said. “Her personality was very jolly.”
She lived alone and put in many hours at the prison, Nixon said. “She worked all the time,” he said.
Said Gov. Cooper: “I'm deeply saddened by this tragedy. This reminds us of the risks that law enforcement including correctional officers take every day to protect us.”
In a news release, Hooks said: “I am deeply saddened and send my heartfelt sympathies to Sergeant Callahan's family. We will do all we can to support her family as well as the correctional family.”
Wissink, the inmate suspected of killing Callahan, received a life sentence for the shooting of John Lawrence Pruey during an attempted robbery in Fayetteville in June 2000. He was convicted nearly four years later.
Prosecutors in the 2004 trial said that Wissink and Lawrence Lee Ash went to Pruey's mobile home with the intent to rob him; each defendant contended the other pulled the trigger on the shotgun that killed Pruey.
Since 2013, Wissink has been cited for six infractions inside prison, one of them for fighting. The 35-year-old inmate has been recognized for his artistic talent. He won first place for drawing at an inmate art show at Vance Granville Community College in 2008, and another prize in 2005 during an art show hosted by the state prison system.
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.