Charlotte County Prison Guard Killed in Escape Attempt

Officer Down: Darla Lathrem - [Punta Gorda, Florida]

By MITCH STACY, Associated Press


A female prison guard was attacked and killed at the Charlotte Correctional Institution during an escape attempt, a state prison spokesman said Thursday.

Darla Lathrem, 38, died Wednesday night at the maximum-security prison, one of three "closed custody" prisons reserved for the state's most troublesome inmates, Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey said.

She was the first Florida prison guard killed in 16 years, but four guards were beaten, one seriously, two weeks ago by inmates at Washington Correctional Institution in north Florida.

Lathrem, who had worked at the prison since last June, was supervising five inmates on a construction detail inside the facility when she was assaulted.

Two of the inmates on the detail were injured, and the other three then tried to escape, Ivey said.

The construction detail was putting the final touches on a new dormitory, he said, and the workers had access to numerous tools, including hammers and screwdrivers.

Guards supervising them would normally be armed with pepper spray, officials said.

No other guards were injured, Ivey said.

Two of the prisoners were captured between the facility and the inner perimeter fence. The third was caught between the inner and outer perimeter fences, Ivey said.

Officials identified one of the would-be escaped convicts as Dwight Eaglin, 27, a professional boxer serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. He has not been charged with Lathrem's death.

He was convicted of the 1998 stabbing death of John Frederick Nichols, who interrupted Eaglin as he tried to remove a stereo from a stolen car behind a Pinellas County topless bar.

Eaglin, who was known as "The Fighting Irishman," was the Florida welterweight champion when he was arrested. The names of the other escape suspects have not been released.

Thursday, the flag at the prison was lowered to half-staff as Charlotte County Sheriff's helicopters hovered over head photographing the crime scene.

Counselors were brought to the prison to talk with grieving co-workers and Department of Corrections Secretary James V. Crosby Jr. visited the prison.

"Obviously, this is a very sad time for the Charlotte Correctional Institution," said Larry Long, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the attack. "They lost one of their own."

The two injured inmates were taken to Lee Memorial Hospital. Their injuries and conditions were not immediately known. Officials were investigating reports that the two inmates were attacked and beaten by the three escapees for not participating in the prison break, Ivey said.

Long said FDLE could not confirm details of the attack. He said corrections officers were alerted to the escape attempt when they saw one inmate using a makeshift ladder to scale the first of two fences that circle the prison.

Dozens of police officers responded to the prison after reports of the attack and attempted jailbreak at about 10 p.m. They set up checkpoints and searched cars on nearby U.S. 41 and Interstate 75. Canine units were on the scene, and a Charlotte County Sheriff's Department helicopter searched the area with a

About an hour later, after conducting a head count, corrections officers reported that all prisoners were accounted for and called off the search.

The facility remains in lockdown, Ivey said, and most prisoners are confined to their cells.

Lathrem's death is the first guard fatality at the facility. The Department of Corrections is conducting a parallel investigation into the prison's policies and procedures, Ivey said.

The Charlotte Correctional Institution houses more than 1,000 prisoners, and has more than 400 people on staff. Ivey said there were 31 guards on duty at the time of the attack.

Officials said this attack and last month's are not an indication of increasing trouble at the state's prisons.

The number of assaults by inmates on correctional officers has remained relatively steady for the past three years, said Debbie Buchanan, a DOC spokeswoman. In 2000, there were 676 assaults, 575 in 2001 and 685 in 2002.

Through May 31 of this year, 272 assaults have been reported.

Before Wednesday, the last correctional officer killed in the line of duty was Officer Fred S. Griffis, who died June 24, 1987, when two men ambushed a prison van in West Palm Beach in an attempt to free an inmate.

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