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Murder at the Alcatraz of the Rockies

The inside story of the first homicide in America’s most secure prison.

By Chris Outcalt

The Atavist Magazine, No. 78


Chris Outcalt is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Colorado. His recent work has appeared on Longreads.com and in 5280, Denver’s city magazine, among other publications.


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel MoattarADXr
Cover Image: AP/Brennan Linsley

Published in April 2018. Design updated in 2021.

I.

Near dawn on April 21, 2005, José Guadian arrived at the federal prison where he’d worked for more than a decade. The bland, low-lying complex in Florence, Colorado, was located off a stretch of State Highway 67, a two-lane road running like a jagged vertical scar through the middle of the state. To the north and west, Guadian could see the Rocky Mountains towering on the horizon. They stood in majestic contrast to the land around the prison. Sun-bleached grass, scattered shrubs, no trees to speak of—it was lonely terrain.

Guadian had made a habit of arriving early for his shift; he never wanted to rush any tasks. The correctional officer walked through a metal detector and past the guards at the front entrance, then down a quiet, sterile hallway illuminated by fluorescent bulbs. At the complex’s administrative hub, he signed out a set of keys for the video-monitoring room, a small office outfitted with a desk, a couple of swivel chairs, and about two dozen small TV screens. Guadian ran through a checklist. He switched on the monitors; they were all working. Check. He inspected the VCRs connected to the screens; they were loaded with tapes. Check. The tapes were recording properly. Check.

The feed came from cameras positioned in the prison’s recreation yards. Guadian could control them from a computer at his post. It wasn’t exciting work, watching grainy video for hours at a time, but it wasn’t all that taxing either. The Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX, ran like clockwork. Altercations among inmates were exceedingly rare, and none had been deadly. No one had ever tried in earnest to escape. On rec ops, Guadian had to stay alert in case a rare infraction occurred.

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A little before 7 a.m., his partner for the shift, Alan Aragon, arrived. That was the last item on the checklist; prison staff on rec ops always worked in pairs. Guadian radioed his colleagues in the residential units to tell them that it was time to take the inmates outside. One by one, clad in workout clothes, thick tube socks, and bulky white running shoes, some of the most dangerous men in America walked into the thin morning air.

ADX Florence, nicknamed the Alcatraz of the Rockies, is where the government locks up the serial killers, terrorists, and drug kingpins considered too dangerous to keep anywhere else. It houses more than 400 inmates, all of them men. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, is there. So is Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center attack, and Terry Nichols, a co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was held there until his transfer to death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 2001. The inmates who aren’t household names are just as ruthless, including white supremacists who committed multiple prison murders before being shipped to the ADX and a cult leader convicted of sex trafficking and child molestation.

The prison is a veritable fortress. Located about an hour south of Colorado Springs, it’s designed to keep inmates caged and isolated. ADX Florence keeps every prisoner in solitary confinement for upwards of 20 hours per day. For someone to get out, he would have to contend with the thick concrete walls of his cell, remote-controlled steel doors, razor-wire fences, attack dogs, and armed guards.

Back in 2005, inmates were rarely permitted more than an hour or two in the rec yards each day, and deciding who was allowed to be outside together was a carefully controlled process. Authorities conducted extensive reviews of disciplinary and arrest records; they monitored inmates’ mail and phone calls. They even posed the question directly to each prisoner: Is there anyone you can’t be grouped with? Men deemed a potential threat to one another weren’t allowed to comingle. With few exceptions, this meant members of rival prison gangs never came into contact. If they did, correctional officers feared, they might try to kill each other on sight.

One of the cohorts allowed outside that April morning consisted of eight members or associates of the Mexican Mafia, also known as la Eme (Spanish for the letter M). Hardened killers and drug traffickers comprised the powerful gang; many were tattooed with a black hand, signaling that they’d made their bones. Once the men arrived in the yard, a concrete space about the size of a football-field end zone, they wasted little time. They greeted each other and started doing burpees, push-ups, and toe touches. Murderers engaged in the mundane.

From their outpost, Guadian and Aragon watched. The cameras picked up video but no audio. When a few guys clustered together, the officers zoomed a camera in on the inmates’ hands and feet, looking for the surreptitious exchange of weapons or contraband. They scanned for any unusual or sudden movements. A little over an hour into their shift, the officers hadn’t spotted anything noteworthy.

Then, at 8:21 a.m., Guadian thought he saw something.

“Hey, go back,” he said to Aragon, who was controlling the cameras.

Aragon spun a camera to the left and zoomed across the length of the rec yard. There, in a corner, an inmate was lying on the ground. He didn’t appear to be moving.


Paul Middleton was sitting in his office when his phone rang. Not his regular desk phone, but the red one. Dubbed “triple deuces,” it was one of four phones in the ADX used in the event of a life-threatening emergency. Middleton had one because, as head of the prison’s inside control, he operated every door in the facility. If someone wanted to initiate a lockdown, they dialed 2-2-2 on a landline and were connected to an officer on a red phone. Those calls almost never happened.

When Middleton picked up the receiver, he heard the voice of a distressed officer. There was a fight in progress in a rec yard in Echo Unit, the officer said, and there were inmates on the ground.

Middleton moved fast. He announced the emergency on a system that overrode all other radio communications in the prison. He unlocked a door that would allow correctional officers a clearer path to the rec yard. Then he rolled a cart of “less lethal” weapons—guns that fired either pepper-spray balls or teargas—into the hallway outside his office so that guards could grab them as they ran past.

The inmates looked relaxed, as if nothing had happened. Some even continued exercising.

When officers arrived at the rec-yard gate, the inmates looked relaxed, as if nothing had happened. Some even continued exercising. ADX policy required a three-to-one ratio of staff to inmates before officers could enter the area. To meet that standard, guards had to pull a few men out of the yard. They ordered everyone to drop onto their stomachs with their hands above their heads, then called an inmate’s name. He got up, walked to the gate, and put his hands through a slot. The guards secured cuffs on his wrists before opening the door and pulling him inside. Protocol demanded that the officers do this one prisoner at a time.

At 8:33 a.m., 12 minutes after rec ops initiated the triple-deuces alert, correctional officers had removed enough prisoners to overtake the area. As they surrounded and handcuffed the remaining men, Nona Gladbach, a nurse practitioner and the prison’s ranking medical officer that day, hurried toward the downed inmate. His body was folded against a wall. Blood was splattered on the cement around his head. He wasn’t breathing.

In her six and a half years at ADX Florence, Gladbach had gotten to know many of the inmates well, but she couldn’t tell who the man was. The skin on his face was blackened from bruising, and his features were swollen from extensive blunt trauma. One signal of brain activity is the responsiveness of pupils to light, but Gladbach couldn’t pry the man’s eyelids open to perform the test.

As staff lifted the inmate onto a gurney and wheeled him at speed to the prison’s medical center, Gladbach began chest compressions. Someone else called local paramedics, who arrived at 8:50 a.m. They spent 22 minutes trying to revive the man with CPR, intubation, and epinephrine. Nothing worked. They would have declared him dead on the spot, but federal policy required that he be transferred to a hospital before that could happen. So the paramedics loaded the man into an ambulance and drove into Cañon City, the nearest town with a hospital. Just after 10 a.m., an ER doctor called time of death.


What came next was uncharted territory: an investigation of the first homicide in a place specifically designed to prevent violence of any kind. Instead of a shank or some other crude weapon, the killer had used fists and feet to pummel a fellow prisoner to a pulp. He’d committed murder in broad daylight, with cameras everywhere, yet avoided being caught in the act. Who had done it? And, more importantly, why?

When an investigator arrived at the ADX shortly after the murder to interview the other prisoners who’d been in the rec yard that day, he got no answers. No one spouted a lie or even a perfunctory “fuck off.” One by one, the men sat down across from the investigator and refused to talk. At most they uttered “not interested.” Several inmates offered only blank stares.

The silence felt calculated. It was as if, collectively, the men had decided how to handle the situation—or were following orders. Law enforcement had to wonder: Maybe, improbably, a murder conspiracy had played out in the most secure facility in America. For the better part of the next decade, a rookie FBI agent would try to prove that it had.

II.

The agent hasn’t given other on-the-record interviews about his involvement in the investigation. His name doesn’t litter public documents about the case. The matter was so sensitive, and the criminals involved so dangerous, that he asked me to safeguard his identity and that of his family. So I’ll refer to him by his first name: Jon.

Jon grew up in the Bible Belt. In his hometown, Southern Baptist revivals were annual events. Jon, who is now in his forties and just this side of six feet tall, with close-cropped brown hair and a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm, likes to joke that the gatherings were just a bunch of guest speakers telling everyone that they were sinners. Still, he credits his religious upbringing with keeping him out of trouble. That and the fact that law enforcement practically runs in his blood.

Jon’s parents worked long hours in blue-collar jobs, so his grandparents looked after him most of the time. One of his grandfathers was a captain in the local police department. He took Jon on visits to the station and the local courthouse, introducing his grandson to friends and colleagues. People lit up when they saw Jon’s grandfather; he was that kind of guy, personable and memorable. And he loved his job as much as people loved him. He was still on the county’s payroll when he died at the age of 96.

After Jon graduated from college, he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and joined a police force, starting out as a patrolman and working his way up to detective. He investigated robberies, kidnappings, and homicides. After a few years on the job, he started imagining what it would be like to work for the FBI. Jon liked the idea of operating with national jurisdiction and solving major crimes. He assumed, however, that he’d never make the cut to join the bureau, so for a while he didn’t try. Then one day some fellow detectives talked him into submitting an application, after which he’d have to take a written exam. To save himself the embarrassment of announcing that he’d failed, Jon decided not to tell his family what he was doing.

He took the test with about 50 other FBI hopefuls, many of whom had brought along scientific calculators. Jon didn’t have one. Would there be math on a law-enforcement exam? he wondered. There was, and it had been a long time since Jon had heard mention of the Pythagorean theorem, much less answered questions about it. By the time the all-day test was over, Jon was spent and certain that he’d done poorly. When the results came in, only two people had passed: a certified public accountant and Jon. I don’t know what they were testing me on, he thought, but it must not have been math.

After some additional screenings, the FBI invited Jon to attend its training academy in Quantico, Virginia, a cross between college and boot camp. When he finished, the 35-year-old got his first field assignment, in the bureau’s Denver division, working out of a satellite office in Colorado Springs. On his second day there, in 2006, Jon toured ADX Florence. Because it was a federal facility, he’d be investigating cases that originated there. He didn’t know much about the place going in. When he learned the identities of some of the inmates, names he’d heard on the nightly news, he realized that it was home to “a bunch of sociopaths.”

That was by design. Once upon a time, Alcatraz was the only federal maximum-security prison. The storied facility in the San Francisco Bay began housing inmates in 1934 and operated for three decades, at which point someone crunched the numbers and realized that the expense of running the Rock, as it was called, was three times greater than the operating cost of any other prison in the country. It was pricey to stock it with supplies, for one thing, including the million gallons of fresh water that had to be shipped there every week. So the feds shuttered the prison in 1963.

The next facility designated for high-risk prisoners was a penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a small town five hours south of Chicago. Then, on October 22, 1983, members of the Aryan Brotherhood, one of the country’s most powerful prison gangs, stabbed to death two correctional officers in separate attacks on the same day. The bloody incident at Marion prompted the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to advocate a new approach: a lockup built specifically to keep problem inmates in near total isolation. The result was ADX Florence. The $60 million, state-of-the-art facility opened in 1994.

Jon learned that each general-population cell, constructed mostly from poured cement, contained a concrete-slab bed with a thin mattress, an unmovable stool, a writing surface, a toilet, and a sink. To avoid guards having to escort prisoners to a shower block, where they would encounter fellow inmates, the cells were equipped with timed showerheads. Each cell had a single thin window and two doors—an interior grate and a solid exterior—separated by a space called a sally port, which provided an extra layer of containment; an inmate couldn’t slide, say, a note or shank under his door for another man to grab. Meals were delivered directly to prisoners three times a day. There was no reason for a man to leave his cell, save for limited rec time.

Civil rights groups had chastised the prison for its extensive use of solitary confinement, but government officials heralded the ADX as exactly what the penal system needed. After touring the facility, Cheri Nolan, then a U.S. deputy assistant attorney general, told the press, “I’ve never seen anything like it as far as the technology and physical setup.” As far as violent incidents were concerned, the men and women who worked at ADX Florence were proud of keeping a clean record—until April 2005.

Not yet 48 hours into his inaugural FBI assignment, Jon learned that he’d be investigating the first murder at the ADX, which had badly shaken the facility’s staff. A colleague explained that, as far as he could tell, the killing had everything to do with the Mexican Mafia.

“What’s that?” Jon asked. “Like a street gang?”

“No, it’s not a street gang,” his colleague replied. “It’s the mother of all street gangs. It’s like the Navy SEALs.”


Contrary to its name, the Mexican Mafia didn’t originate south of the border. The group started in 1957 at a juvenile lockup about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Luis Flores, a 16-year-old kid from Los Angeles, hatched a plan to unite rival Mexican American crews into one supergang. Prison was a dangerous place, and the idea was that if they banded together, they’d wield more power and be able to protect themselves. About a dozen founding members started recruiting, with an eye toward inductees who were willing to attack on command. The story goes that one of the gang’s architects found tales of the Italian mob alluring and coopted its name.

By 1961, the nascent group had perpetrated enough violence at the juvenile institution that its members were transferred to an adult penitentiary, San Quentin State Prison. San Quentin sat at the end of a small peninsula abutting the San Francisco Bay, not too far from Alcatraz. The Mexican Mafia quickly asserted its influence there, and by the end of the 1960s, the gang had extended its tentacles beyond San Quentin into every correctional facility in the state. Members deliberately caused enough problems at one prison—targeting guards, stabbing other prisoners, funneling in drugs from the outside—to get transferred to another facility, where they’d again use violence and intimidation to establish their authority.

In the early 1970s, a burst of brutality in California prisons attracted the attention of the FBI. There were 36 murders in 12 months, and officials believed that the Mexican Mafia was to blame for as many as 30. The FBI was also concerned that the gang might be infiltrating structures outside the correctional system. A special agent in San Francisco penned a classified memo in 1973 that described the gang (which “controls the major lines of narcotics into California prisons”) as having approximately 750 members. Based on information gleaned from confidential informants, the memo concluded that “the Mexican Mafia has become so sophisticated that it has put together an efficient intelligence organization, pools of sympathetic lawyers, has used revolutionary groups for its own ends, and has taken over respectable Mexican-American social action groups.” As members were paroled, they established sets across Southern California. In one instance, they allegedly infiltrated a nonprofit center for disadvantaged youth.

The gang developed an organizational structure not unlike that of a Fortune 500 company.

The gang developed an organizational structure not unlike that of a Fortune 500 company, with ranking members and a voting board that weighed in on matters like which new associates to recognize and which hits to approve. But membership wasn’t offered freely. Becoming a mafioso often took years. It required a current member to act as your sponsor and prove your willingness to kill. Once you were in, the rules of the gang were clear. No homosexuals, informants, or cowards would be tolerated. Members couldn’t harm each other without sanction, sleep with fellow mafiosi’s wives or girlfriends, or steal from one another. Joining the gang was a lifelong commitment. Dropouts would be killed, no questions asked.

Over the next two decades, la Eme continued its vicious reign. There were murders on the streets of California, stabbings in attorney visiting rooms, and violent feuds with other prison gangs. Reportedly, in the early 1990s, the group considered assassinating California governor Pete Wilson over what it viewed as an anti-Latino proposition to bar undocumented immigrants from using certain public services. According to The Black Hand, a book by journalist Chris Blatchford, the California Highway Patrol received eight separate tips that Wilson might be in danger, including mentions of a $1 million hit by la Eme. The agency investigated the tips but found nothing. An assassination attempt never materialized.

In 1995, the federal government filed an 81-page indictment against 22 alleged Mexican Mafia members and associates under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, the statute that designates penalties for offenses committed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. The FBI had flipped a high-ranking mafioso; he’d agreed to wear a wire, which netted damning evidence of murder, extortion, and kidnapping. Thirteen of those arrested were ultimately tried, and all but one were found guilty. At sentencing, prosecutors sought to cripple the gang by dispersing the convicted to various federal penitentiaries. Distance, they believed, would hamper communication and collusion. In fact, it helped the gang plant seeds across the entire country.


A few years later, the government tried again to undercut la Eme. In the early-morning hours of February 2, 1999, hundreds of law-enforcement officials suited up in tactical gear and fanned out across Los Angeles County. Armed with search and arrest warrants, they raided homes and businesses, sweeping up hundreds of suspects believed to have gang ties. Twenty-seven people were indicted under the RICO Act. Among them was Manuel Torrez.

A married father of four, Torrez, nicknamed Tati, was in his fifties. He’d spent much of his life in and out of state prisons. His kids only got to know him during the spurts—two years here, three years there—when he wasn’t locked up. I spoke with his son Andres, now 39, who told me that his father had tried to shield the family from the violence of the gang. Torrez took his two sons hiking in the hills outside Los Angeles, and he spoiled his two daughters, bringing home bags of candy and hiding the sweets from everyone except the girls. Occasionally, Torrez would throw a mattress in the back of his pickup and take the family to a drive-in movie.

Torrez told his kids that, although he couldn’t act as a role model for how to get up every morning and hold down a nine-to-five job, he could be an example of the awful things that would happen if they took the same path he had. “I’ve done enough time for everyone,” he said.

It was impossible for him to separate his two lives completely. Andres saw his father get arrested once. On another occasion, the narcotics cops who kept close tabs on Torrez pulled him over while he was running errands with Andres. When they noticed a white substance on the car’s dashboard, the police crowed, “We got you, Tati!” But it wasn’t cocaine; it was residue from a jelly donut that Andres had just finished eating.

Torrez’s past caught up with him in 1999, when he was charged under RICO for a range of allegations involving homicide, assault, extortion, and possession of drugs and weapons. According to a member of the Metropolitan Violent Gang Task Force who was involved in the bust, Tati was a big get: a longtime mafioso suspected of ordering numerous hits. Torrez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 years at Lompoc, a federal prison an hour north of Santa Barbara.

He was senior enough in the Mexican Mafia that, at Lompoc, he was able to take charge of the yard—a coveted leadership role. As a seasoned gang veteran, Torrez no longer had to do any dirty work, but he oversaw it all: drug deals, assaults, and other violent business. When officials realized the power he wielded, they decided to put Torrez somewhere far from his connections in la Eme. The government transferred him to ADX Florence.

Torrez was in his sixties by then, with four grandkids back home. At the ADX, he gained a reputation as one of the graying old guard. He moved slowly when officers escorted him down a hallway or up a flight of stairs. Sometimes he had to steady himself against the prison’s walls. Andres told me that, at some point, his father had suffered a stroke.

The morning of the rec-yard murder, after the commotion had settled, ADX staff realized that Torrez was the man missing from Echo Unit. Fingerprints confirmed his identity. Less than a year after arriving in Colorado, the inmate whom a correctional officer once described as a “used-up gangster” became the prison’s first homicide victim.

III.

Jon began his investigation by reviewing what the prison staff knew. As guards cleared the rec yard, one of them had noticed that an inmate’s shoes were spattered with blood. The prisoner’s name was Richard “Chuco” Santiago. He was a short man with a thick build and intricate tattoos, including several Aztec figures, covering his arms and chest. When guards arrived at his cell, they found Santiago stripped to his boxers and bent over his toilet, dunking his clothes and shoes in the water.

“What do you want?” Santiago asked as the officers entered the sally port. “I’m just washing some clothes.” The guards ordered him to stop. He looked right at them and kept going. Only when he was threatened with forceful extraction did he comply.

Santiago wasn’t a troublemaker. The guards considered him polite and respectful, and it was unusual for him to ignore an order. Still, there’s a common saying at the prison—no one winds up at ADX Florence by mistake—and Santiago was no exception. At 45, he’d amassed an extensive rap sheet that stretched all the way back to his teenage years: armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, felony possession of a firearm, narcotics violations, parole violations. When he committed the crime that put him away for life, he was already locked up. On the afternoon of January 25, 1989, he stabbed another inmate to death while working his shift in the kitchen at Lompoc. DNA testing linked Santiago to the crime, and his cell mate testified at the trial that, a few weeks before the murder, Santiago had asked what it would take to get into a prison gang. The cell mate also said that, the night before the killing, he’d overheard Santiago discussing a hit with a member of the Mexican Mafia. Santiago was found guilty in 1993 of the murder that, in all likelihood, had secured his place in la Eme.

After moving Santiago to a holding area, the ADX guards’ next step was to review the tapes from the rec yard’s cameras to figure out what they’d missed. The eerie, gruesome footage began at 8:15 a.m., six minutes before Guadian noticed Torrez on the ground. Torrez was doing toe touches near a camera in one corner of the yard. Santiago and another inmate, Silvestre “Chikali” Rivera, stood about ten feet away. Rivera swung his arms in a windmill motion, as if warming up for a workout. Santiago approached Torrez alone, and Torrez appeared to reach out to shake Santiago’s hand. Then Santiago darted at him and threw a punch. The blow pushed Torrez backward, directly underneath the camera. His position made it impossible for the lens to capture the attack.

The only other camera in the yard was in the far corner, which also made it difficult for officers Guadian and Aragon to spot what happened next: Rivera and Santiago punching and kicking Torrez in the ribs and head for two minutes straight. The attackers then took breaks, walking away from their victim. At one point, Santiago sipped from a water bottle. Then he went back and delivered several more blows. Torrez’s body jolted with the impact of each kick but was otherwise motionless. Four minutes after the final phase of the assault, guards arrived at the yard.

The attackers took breaks, walking away from their victim. At one point, Santiago sipped from a water bottle. 

Later, when officers went to retrieve Rivera from his cell, he appeared to be shaking. The 47-year-old had never been charged with murder; he’d first gone to prison in 1979, when he was 21, for committing a string of bank robberies. He’d struggled with heroin addiction, and his prison file included write-ups for assaults on other inmates, peddling illegal drugs, and cooking a 25-gallon batch of contraband wine. Once, at another facility, he’d tried to escape by using a hacksaw to get out a window. He’d been transferred to the ADX from another lockup for beating and biting inmates and getting caught with heroin.

The day after the murder, while moving through a special housing unit for disciplined inmates, Rivera spoke to the guards escorting him. “I know you guys are mad at me for what I did,” he said, according to one of the officers.

The guards didn’t respond. Rivera kept talking.

“While I’m at rec, I heard this was the first at this facility,” he said. “Is that true?”

“What are you talking about?” an officer responded.

“What I did,” Rivera said. “I heard it made the news.”


When Jon watched the security footage, he wondered what there was to investigate. The case wasn’t a whodunit. This is ridiculous, he thought. It’s so obvious. Jon figured even the greenest of prosecutors could hit play on the tape and have a reasonable shot at extracting guilty pleas from the two inmates. And if the men didn’t admit what they’d done, surely it wouldn’t be that hard to convince a judge and jury to convict them.

“Boy,” Jon told me, “I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Among the things he didn’t immediately comprehend were the legal peculiarities of the prisoners’ circumstances. Santiago was already serving life in prison; Rivera had another 15 years behind bars. In the grand scheme of the men’s incarcerated lives, a plea deal for, at a minimum, a few decades would mean very little. The government wanted to send a message to gangs: Stop killing behind bars. The question, then, was how to punish prisoners who’d all but reached the end of the line. One possible answer was the death penalty.

The Justice Department’s Capital Crimes Unit reviews federal cases that are eligible for death-penalty proceedings, and all first-degree murders are eligible. The death squad, as it’s known among defense lawyers, exists so that the same standard is applied to capital cases in Colorado as in, say, Georgia. Requesting permission to take someone’s life, however, calls for more than grainy video from a security camera. To begin with, it requires proving intent and premeditation. In the Torrez case, that would mean examining the inner workings of the Mexican Mafia.

Jon saw a thread that, once tugged, might help him unravel the backstory of the crime. Torrez and Santiago had been at ADX Florence since 2000 and had been housed in the same unit for almost a year; they’d been in rec yards together dozens of times and never seemed to be in conflict. Rivera, on the other hand, had arrived at the prison only a few weeks before the murder. The morning of the crime was only the second time he’d ever been outside for group rec. Jon wondered if Rivera had been the catalyst for the killing.

That question also piqued the interest of the prosecutor assigned to the case. Bob Mydans, a fit man in his fifties, with a square jaw and a full head of dark hair, was a longtime assistant U.S. attorney in Denver known for handling complex litigation. He’d helped bring down the city’s major mob family, the Smaldones, and prosecuted the so-called Cowboys, seven prison guards indicted for conspiring to deceive, threaten, and even torture inmates and hide the evidence.

In early 2007, Mydans invited Jon to his office on the 16th floor of a high-rise building with sweeping views of Denver’s downtown. Jon, who lived south of the city, didn’t make the trip to the capital often. It felt bureaucratic and stuffy. He preferred a slower pace of life and easy access to the mountains. He was relieved when he instantly connected with Mydans. They shared a deep love of the outdoors, and Mydans, 23 years Jon’s senior, boasted of exploring every continent except Antarctica. They talked about hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that tourists too often skipped.

Then they began formulating a plan to tackle the ADX case. According to prison guards, a rumor was floating around that Santiago was a torpedo, slang for someone designated to carry out la Eme’s bloody business on the inside. If true, high-ranking mafiosi had decided to green-light Torrez, or mark him for death. Then they’d gotten word to Santiago, possibly through a messenger. One of the leaders of the Mexican Mafia, Adolf “Champ” Reynoso, was locked up at ADX Florence. Could he have called the shots? Or could the green light have come from a mafioso at another prison or one living on the outside?

Before Jon drove home, Mydans proposed setting up an office for the FBI agent next to his own. He wanted Jon to have the option of being just a shout away the deeper they dug into the case. “We both knew what we were getting into,” Jon told me.


The Mexican Mafia purportedly kept a secret list of approved hits. “Every now and then, a copy would surface,” Jon said, “and it was freakin’ 15 pages long.” The lists were almost certainly fake; the real one, if it existed, lived in the minds of the gang’s leadership.

If Torrez had ever been targeted for a hit, the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles might know. No place in the country boasted more experts on la Eme, and at least one analyst worked the beat full time. Jon and Mydans decided to pay them a visit.

When the two agents stepped off the plane onto a jet bridge at LAX in 2007, the sun was warm and bright. It felt invigorating. What they encountered at the FBI office did, too; the place was like a library stocked with every book they needed. “They had a ton of intel,” Jon said, ranging from historical documents about the gang to files on current members. “We wanted it all.” That was the strategy: collect as much information as possible and sort through it later.

Mexican Mafia tattoos (Department of Justice)

Agents in L.A. shared the taxonomy of Mexican Mafia power players and a rundown of who was housed in which prisons. They also offered access to two pools of valuable sources. The first were behind bars: men associated with la Eme who had struck a deal agreeing to pass along information and rumors to the FBI. The second were gang defectors, who at great risk to themselves had provided information about la Eme to the government. They’d been placed in witness protection and were living under new identities in remote locations across the country.

Jon and Mydans decided to meet with countless sources in person. “It’s not like you’re going to get a subpoena and read through their email,” Jon said. He and Mydans flew all over the country, visiting dusty towns with a couple of stoplights and a Chili’s. Mydans seemed to relish the work. He was a traveler at heart. “Everywhere he went, it was going to be an adventure,” Jon said. Mydans loved to stop locals on the sidewalk and solicit restaurant recommendations. To him, eating ribs off a paper plate at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint was a form of enlightenment.

Among the people they met with were ex-mafiosi. Jon couldn’t tell me who the defectors were, where they were located, or the specific intelligence that they shared. Putting identifying information into the world risked the Mexican Mafia showing up on its former members’ doorsteps and killing them on the spot.

The trips produced several explanations of why la Eme might have green-lit Torrez, but one came up more than the others. Before his arrest in the 1999 RICO case, Torrez had been involved in the drug trade in Southern California. He’d used the Mexican Mafia’s muscle and threats of violence to collect taxes from dealers and junkies; they paid him for the right to sell and to use on the streets. But Torrez overstepped. He wanted taxes from another mafioso’s territory, so he’d had the man killed—a clear violation of two gang rules: You don’t interfere with another member’s business, and you don’t unilaterally decide to kill another mafioso.

That would mean Torrez was murdered in 2005 for something he’d done in the 1990s. Such a long delay isn’t unheard of. In the Mexican Mafia, it can take years for information about an offense to circulate, and even longer for leadership to sign off on a hit, given how diffuse and secretive the gang is—to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, both shot callers and their targets are in lockup.

Jon and Mydans came to believe that Rivera was the messenger who’d arrived at ADX Florence with confirmation of the green light and communicated it to Santiago. During the investigation, Jon heard stories of the extraordinary lengths la Eme went to when it wanted that kind of information conveyed. The message didn’t always come directly from a high-ranking member. Maybe another inmate had told Rivera while riding with him in a transfer van or sitting with him in a holding cell. Or maybe word had been passed through a corrupt correctional officer or attorney.

Equally alarming were tales of how la Eme manipulated legal cases against its members and associates. The gang viewed discovery—the phase when lawyers share evidence in advance of a trial—as a fact-finding mission. It was an opportunity to identify defectors and snitches and to learn how the feds were gathering their intelligence. Armed with that information, the Mexican Mafia could figure out ways to clog the investigative process or order hits against cooperators. “They value life so little, it’d be nothing for them to go put a shank in somebody just so they could take it to trial and corner all these witnesses up,” Jon told me.


Jon watched the security footage of Torrez’s murder so many times that he lost count. Some days, when he and Mydans weren’t on the road, he would arrive for work, sit down at his desk, bring the video up on his computer, and hit play. He memorized the men’s movements and gestures. He looked for clues he might not have seen the previous dozen times he’d watched.

The morning of the murder, guards hadn’t taken Rivera out to the rec yard right away. It seemed to have been an honest clerical oversight. When Rivera hailed an officer to his cell and said that he should be outside, the guard checked prison records and realized that the inmate was right. Rivera was shackled and led to the yard. The whole process took about ten or 15 minutes. In the intervening time, as Jon saw on the security footage, Santiago appeared to wonder where Rivera was. At one point, he stood talking next to a small window in one of the walls facing the rec yard. Based on diagrams of the ADX, Jon could see that the window was in Rivera’s cell.

Because the footage had no accompanying audio, Jon decided to visit the ADX to discern what the inmates knew about the conversation. Maybe someone from a rival gang had seen something from his window or had heard a fragment of a rumor about what was said through a drainpipe, which carried voices between cells. Jon approached the prison’s in-house law enforcement, Special Investigative Services, for help.

“Do you guys have an interview room?” he asked.

“Yeah,” one investigator said. “But you can’t use it.”

No one wanted to be seen, willingly or not, talking to an FBI agent. It could mark him as a traitor.

No one wanted to be seen, willingly or not, talking to an FBI agent. It could mark him as a traitor.

Guards had to be crafty. One tactic, later discussed in court proceedings, was to pull an inmate from his cell under the pretense of a doctor visit or a lawyer call, then escort him to an out-of-the-way area where Jon waited on the other side of a thick pane of glass. Still, when prisoners saw or heard that someone was being moved through the block, they got curious. “Hey guard, why’s this guy getting out?” one would yell from his cell. If the answer was “dentist appointment,” the skeptical retort was, “I didn’t know he had teeth problems.”

Jon was nervous about the interviews. He mostly met with gangsters; the big-name prisoners, terrorists like the Unabomber, were segregated in special units, disconnected from where the Torrez murder had happened. Jon sat across from men with hard-bitten countenances. Lives of violence and incarceration had left them tattooed, scarred, and bitter. Some had been locked up by the FBI, and when Jon flashed his badge, they turned hostile and demanded to be taken back to their cells. Others, though, seemed desperate to talk. Not about the murder—no one, it turned out, had anything pertinent to say about that. They just wanted to shoot the shit. The men had stumbled into a disruption to the monotony of their daily lives and wanted to stay in it as long as they could.

Though Jon came away from the interviews with very little, the ADX guards shared an important tidbit. Just before he was killed, Torrez had used the yard’s intercom system, which allows inmates to ask guards questions. He’d asked where Rivera was. “It’s crazy,” Jon told me. “He’s inviting his killer to come outside. It’s like [the gang] got word to him that Rivera’s got something he wants to share that’s really important. Then Rivera shows up and it’s, ‘Yeah, by the way, you’re green-lit.’”


By early 2010, Jon and Mydans were confident that they had the evidence they needed to support their green-light theory. Mydans filed a straightforward, two-count indictment at the federal courthouse in Denver. It alleged that Santiago and Rivera had “willfully, deliberately, maliciously and under premeditation and malice aforethought” killed Torrez. It kept details about the hit, like who might have ordered it, to a minimum. Presumably, Mydans wanted to hold that knowledge close until trial.

Court was still a long way off. There would be standard pretrial motions and maneuverings. More important, the Capital Crimes Unit had to decide if it wanted Mydans to pursue the death penalty. He and Jon waited a year before they heard from the unit.

In March 2011, Mydans announced that he would seek the death penalty against Santiago but not Rivera. The reason why was tied up, at least in part, with a deft move by Rivera’s defense attorney, David Lane. A prominent Denver lawyer whose name was on a short list of people approved to act as court-appointed counsel in capital cases, Lane had taken Rivera’s case in 2010. Like Jon, when he first watched the security footage, he felt uneasy. It reminded him of an old newspaper cartoon in which a lawyer sits in a jail cell talking with his client. In Lane’s recollection, the caption said something to the effect of, “OK, the crime is on videotape. You’re plunging the knife in 52 times. Then you get in your car, run over the guy. It was in Times Square, and there are 10,000 eyewitnesses. Your fingerprints are on the knife, and your DNA is all over the body. Now, here’s my plan.”

Lane decided that his first duty was to save his client from the death penalty. On that front, he saw an opening. When he learned about the unsolicited comments Rivera had made to a pair of guards the day after the murder, seemingly admitting to the crime, Lane noted two relevant facts: First, although he’d spent much of his life in America, Rivera was a Mexican citizen. According to the Vienna Convention, an international treaty, citizens of one country arrested in another must immediately be appraised of their right to speak to counsel. The second fact was that no one had advised Rivera of that right. Testimony about Rivera’s comments, Lane believed, shouldn’t be admissible.

Arguing that the government had violated the Vienna Convention wasn’t an ironclad legal tactic—among other problems, the Senate has never ratified the treaty—but it was a canny diplomatic move. The Mexican ambassador to the United States agreed to write a letter to then attorney general Eric Holder and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “The Government of Mexico has no record of any consular notification ever being provided in Mr. Rivera’s case,” it stated.

Two months after the letter was delivered to officials in Washington, Mydans announced his intent in the case. Rivera sidestepping a death-penalty prosecution meant that he and Santiago would be tried separately. Rivera’s trial would come first. Before it could begin, though, tragedy struck.

Satellite view of ADX Florence (Google Earth)
Satellite view of ADX Florence (Image: Google Earth)

IV.

In 2008, two years into the investigation of the Torrez murder, Jon had met a woman I’ll call A.K. when she joined the FBI office in Denver. A.K. had always wanted to work at the bureau. A self-described geek and overachiever from the Midwest, she was the kind of recruit who, unlike Jon, had studied for the math on the entrance exam. She’d served in the military as an intelligence analyst. In Colorado, she was assigned to the international terrorism desk. More than a year later, Jon asked her out, and among their first dates was a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of those hidden gems that Jon and Mydans liked to talk about. The pair trekked about a mile and a half up to Dream Lake, a long, narrow body of water nestled among emerald-colored fir trees and 10,000-foot slate peaks. It was a beautiful spot, particularly in winter. After several years of dating, Jon and A.K. decided to get married there.

The morning of Saturday, February 18, 2012, was brisk. Jon and A.K. bundled up, strapped snowshoes onto their boots, and headed up the snow-covered trail toward the lake. The ceremony took place at the edge of the water, and the officiant was the only witness. On their way down, they ran into a stranger and told him they’d just gotten married; he agreed to take their picture. To celebrate, the pair spent the night at a cabin in the park.

When they descended the next day and regained cell service, their phones lit up with messages and missed calls. They weren’t from friends or family offering congratulations, however. They were from colleagues calling with terrible news: Mydans had died of a heart attack. It had happened while the attorney was snowshoeing with his wife in Rocky Mountain National Park, not far from the happy couple on the edge of Dream Lake.

Jon was devastated. He’d spent the first six years of his FBI career working closely with Mydans, living and breathing an unprecedented case. At the funeral a few days later, Mydans’s boss, U.S. attorney John Walsh, said in prepared remarks, “We tried some difficult cases as a team, and there was no one better to do it with.”

Within a few weeks, Jon decided to hand the Torrez case to A.K., who by then was off the terrorism desk and working other crimes, including some at ADX Florence. Jon was confident that he and Mydans had built a strong argument. By transferring responsibility to his wife, Jon would still be close to the trial, and he could advise or consult if the FBI needed him. But he would also have space to grieve while working his new beat: white-collar crime.

U.S. attorney M.J. Menendez took over Mydans’s role as lead prosecutor. She and her second chair, Valeria Spencer, had work to do; there were 873 pretrial filings. In part that was because death-penalty cases are so complex. They can drag on for years. Lane, Rivera’s attorney, even moved at one point to dismiss the charges against his client on the grounds that the prosecution had failed “to commence the case against him within such a time as to afford him his right to due process and to speedy trial.” The request was denied.

Rather than try to prove the green-light theory that Jon and Mydans had worked so painstakingly to bolster, Menendez and Spencer decided to take a more conservative approach: They were going to rely on the security footage to convince the jury that a murder had occurred, but not dwell on whether or not la Eme had ordered it. The lawyers declined to discuss with me why they made that decision. Though she wasn’t involved in trial strategy, A.K. pointed out that green-light theory added complexity and risk to the proceedings, so the lawyers did what, to them, seemed most sensible.

Jon agreed with his wife’s take. Still, he told me, “We could have presented that case the day after the murder happened.” Gone was the opportunity to discuss publicly and in detail the channels by which the Mexican Mafia ordered hits. Gone was the chance for ex-gangsters to take the stand, with their identities protected if they chose, to declare that Santiago was a torpedo.


Rivera’s trial opened in Denver on April 6, 2015. For security reasons, the jury was sequestered and anonymous; each member was assigned a four-digit number, affixed with his or her initials, as an identifier. The defendant, wearing a checked shirt, gray slacks, and a salt-and-pepper mustache, sat next to his attorneys with his legs chained to a bucket filled with cement. U.S. marshals were positioned nearby.

In her opening statement, Spencer ran the surveillance tape for the jury. “What you’re about to see,” Spencer said, “is footage from those cameras … showing Mr. Rivera and Mr. Santiago taking an old man in ill health completely by surprise, attacking him, and killing him. The video will also show how the other inmates on the yard did absolutely nothing in response.” She didn’t mention the possibility that the Mexican Mafia had ordered the hit.

The defense opened with a different theory. “There was a plan to commit a murder on April 21, 2005,” defense co-counsel Kathryn Stimson said, “but that plan was by Manuel Torrez, and that murder was planned for this man who sits before you today, Silvestre Rivera.” The defense intended to show that, were it not for Santiago stepping in to help Rivera, Torrez would be the one on trial for homicide. Her client, Stimson continued, “was acting in self-defense … to protect himself and save his own life.”

It’s common after a prison murder for the perpetrators to claim that they did what they had to do. What worried the prosecution wasn’t the approach; it was the defense’s promise to call witnesses who would prove its theory, including another ADX inmate. In all their years of investigation, Jon and Mydans had never been able to secure an eyewitness to the murder.

For the next four days, while laying out their side of the case, Menendez and Spencer called more than a dozen people to testify. Each one provided a detailed account of what happened the day of the murder, from the moment rec ops noticed Torrez on the ground to the moment he was declared dead. José Guadian choked up on the stand while recalling what he’d seen in the video-monitoring room. “It didn’t matter that they’re inmates to me,” Guadian, who’d since left ADX Florence to work for the Department of Homeland Security, told the jury. “It’s that this happened on my watch.” A paramedic testified that the only other instances when he’d witnessed the extent of trauma Torrez had suffered was in people who’d jumped from the nearby Royal Gorge Bridge, which spanned a rocky chasm 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River. The coroner who’d examined Torrez’s body reported that the inmate was almost certainly dead before he was removed from the ADX; in fact, he may well have died before he was carted out of the rec yard.

When the defense took over, the attorneys depicted ADX Florence as a place where the kill-or-be-killed way of life common in many prisons was at its most extreme. Lane called Wayne Bridgewater, 63, to the stand as a sort of character witness. Bridgewater was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and had been behind bars for 42 years; he was serving four consecutive life sentences at the ADX, each for a different prison murder. He’d agreed to testify because he thought Rivera seemed like a decent person.

The attorneys depicted ADX Florence as a place where the kill-or-be-killed way of life common in many prisons was at its most extreme.

“When you are in prison and somebody accuses you of being a ‘check-in,’” Lane asked, “are you familiar with that term?”

“Yes,” Bridgewater said.

“Explain to the jury what that means.”

“That means that somebody went to prison staff and requested to be locked up in a segregation situation, to be away from all other inmates.”

“And what does that signal to the rest of the inmates?”

“That he’s a coward.”

“What’s wrong with being labeled a coward?”

“Prison isn’t a good place to be labeled a coward.”

“Why?”

“You know, it’s prey to predator in prison. So if you’re not a predator, you’re going to be prey. That just opens the door for that.”

“If somebody were to walk up to you and say, ‘I thought you were a check-in, Bridgewater,’ how would you take that?”

“I’d kill him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s being disrespectful to me.”

“I don’t understand. You would kill him because he’s being disrespectful to you?”

“Yeah.”

“Why is that a capital offense?”

“You got to understand the honor code that we live by in prison,” Bridgewater replied. “First thing is, you don’t allow people to disrespect. You know, you live your life by certain moral codes in prison, and you live and die by them.”

The following day, the defense called another ADX inmate, Arcadio Perez. He’d been in the rec yard when the murder happened. He’d also been Rivera’s cell mate at a previous lockup. Menendez and Spencer had no idea what Perez was going to say to the jury, but they sensed that he was the defense’s key witness.

Speaking through an interpreter, Perez shared a very different account of the crime. He said that Torrez had asked him multiple times to help kill Rivera. (Because Rivera was an associate of la Eme and not a made member, Torrez wouldn’t have needed approval from the higher-ups.) A few days before the murder, a fellow prisoner who, because of good behavior, was allowed to clean the prison’s halls, had passed Perez a note from Torrez. It said that Rivera had been disrespectful and had to be dealt with. Stimson, who was questioning Perez, asked what he’d done with the note. He said that he’d ripped it up and flushed it down his toilet “because it was a hot letter.” Perez also told the court that, in the rec yard, Torrez said he’d smuggle in a piece of metal to use in the hit. Torrez would signal the attack on Rivera with a simple “let’s go.”

During cross-examination, Spencer tried to undercut Perez’s credibility by playing the security footage and pausing at moments when Perez and Torrez stood next to each other in the yard. Was that when Torrez said that he wanted to kill Rivera? Perez said he couldn’t remember. When Spencer pressed him, he insisted, “I’m not lying to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. He said to me, ‘We’re going to kill him.’”

Spencer also broached Jon and Mydans’s green-light theory, one of only a few instances during the trial when the idea was mentioned. “You knew that Mr. Rivera had come over to ADX and brought that final piece, that final message over, that the green light was activated on Mr. Torrez and it was time to kill him, didn’t you?” Spencer asked. The defense pounced, objecting that the question rested on facts that weren’t in evidence. The judge allowed the question, and Perez said that he’d never heard about any green light. Spencer didn’t pursue the matter further. (Lane, for his part, was dismissive of the theory that Rivera was a messenger. “There are ways to pass messages without having Silvestre Rivera come to the ADX,” he said in an interview.)

Rivera was the last person to testify. The courtroom fell silent, and the jurors’ posture stiffened in anticipation of what the defendant had to say.

“Did you intend to kill Manuel Torrez?” Stimson asked.

“No, I did not,” Rivera said.

“Did you kill him?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Why?”

“Because if I didn’t get involved right then and there, I would be the one dead that day.”

“How do you feel about the fact that he’s dead?”

“I feel bad. I feel bad because a life was taken. I ain’t never done that before, but it was either him or me. That’s the way it was.”

Rivera claimed that Torrez had become angry with him. He couldn’t say for sure why, but he had a guess. There were often internal disputes within the Mexican Mafia. Over the years, Rivera had become close with a few guys Torrez didn’t get along with, including one who’d wanted him dead. Rivera revealed those connections during his first day in the rec yard. Later Torrez shouted at him, “I’ll take your fucking life, you fucking punk.”

Rivera had been surprised when Santiago, who’d once held the title of boxing champion at San Quentin, offered to look out for him. “Don’t worry,” Rivera recalled Santiago saying. “I got you.”  

From left: Manuel Torrez; an ADX cell (Photos: Courtesy of Torrez family; AP/Mark Reis)

The jury didn’t reach a verdict right away. After a full day of deliberation followed by a night of rest, they reconvened at 8:30 a.m. on April 21, 2015—exactly ten years after Torrez’s murder.

At 12:02 p.m., the jurors sent word to the judge that they had a question. The attorneys gathered in the courtroom to hear it read aloud: “Would you consider providing us the ability to consider a charge to a lesser degree than murder in or to the first degree?” This almost certainly indicated good news for the defense. Lane, however, had already discussed this possibility with his client, and Rivera didn’t want the judge to consider another charge. He was approaching 60 and still had several years on the books for his bank robberies. Any felony conviction would amount to a de facto life sentence; his only chance of seeing the outside world again was to beat the murder charge altogether. The judge said no to the question.

At 5:23 p.m., the jury returned its verdict: guilty. The defense’s gamble had failed. Rivera would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Afterward, the judge let the lawyers speak with the jurors. More than one indicated that the deciding factor was the duration of the assault. Rivera had claimed self-defense, but what the jury saw in the surveillance video was a few too many punches and kicks after the supposed threat had been neutralized. No one spoke about the possibility that the hit had been ordered.

When A.K. got home after spending the duration of the trial at a hotel in Denver, she and Jon decided to open a bottle of wine, something special. “We’re pretty simple,” Jon told me, “so special’s not $200 a bottle.” There’s a line of California wines called 19 Crimes; each label bears the backstory of a legendary convict. That night, Jon and A.K. drank a cabernet called the Prisoner.


Sentencing was a formality. Nevertheless, at the hearing a few weeks after Rivera’s conviction, both sides of the case had something to say. The prosecution introduced letters written by Torrez’s sons describing their father. “My Dad was a man who loved his family and worked hard to keep us from his lifestyle,” one read. “I just want the court and these two cowards to know that when they killed my Dad, they didn’t kill a ‘crime boss’ or a ‘shot caller’ NO! They killed my dad, my Mom’s Husband, & my Children’s Grandfather! They denied us the opportunity to share our special moments with him.”

Lane followed up by admonishing hypocrisy. “The government is humanizing Mr. Torrez and completely dehumanizing Mr. Rivera and Mr. Santiago,” he said. “Had this day gone according to plan, Mr. Torrez would be seated in this courtroom facing a death penalty for the murder of Silvestre Rivera…. The fact that Mr. Torrez is the person who ended up in the morgue that day and not Mr. Rivera is not lost on anyone, but just as Mr. Torrez is a multifaceted human being, or was, so is Mr. Rivera, so is Mr. Santiago.” The statement pointed to what Lane saw as a flawed, even inhumane attempt to impose the same standards and assumptions that govern the outside world on a place like the ADX, which one of its wardens had described to the press as “a clean version of hell.”

All life is fragile; at ADX Florence, it was constantly under threat. Why, Lane wondered aloud, did the legal system struggle to acknowledge that reality?

In the end, no one got the chance to make the same case in Santiago’s defense. A few months after Rivera’s trial, the government offered Santiago the opportunity to plead guilty and avoid the death penalty. He took the deal.

V.

Several times during our conversations, Jon remarked on how frustrating it can be when cases drag on or don’t go as planned. I asked how he handles the stress of his job. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “Bourbon helps.”

Jon hasn’t been back to ADX Florence in several years. A.K. still works cases based there, but she’s never handled a homicide. There hasn’t been one since 2005. In recent years, the prison has more often made headlines for potential civil rights violations. A class action lawsuit, the largest ever filed against the federal Bureau of Prisons, was settled in January 2017. Attorneys alleged widespread abuses of mentally ill prisoners and “deplorable conditions of confinement that are inhumane to these prisoners.” The suit described inmates who, traumatized in solitary confinement, ate their own fingers or sliced off their earlobes, and others with preexisting conditions like depression that the prison neglected, sometimes to the point that prisoners committed suicide. The ADX agreed to improve inmates’ psychiatric evaluations, and it transferred more than 100 prisoners with diagnosed mental illnesses to other facilities.  

The most tangible outcome of the Torrez murder was a policy change that surely displeased the lawyers battling for better conditions at ADX Florence. The day after the crime, the warden ended group rec for good. Instead, inmates would have access, one at a time, to chain-link cages erected in the yards.

After his trial, Rivera disappeared back into the ADX. Santiago did, too. These days, when either man is scheduled for rec time, two guards escort him out of his cell, down a hallway, and into one of the individual enclosures. The inmates’ lives are lived between two cages.  

After reading thousands of pages of government documents and court records and transcripts, I decided to write Rivera a letter asking if he would talk to me about his trial. Surprisingly, he wrote back. When I’d spoken with Stimson, one of his attorneys, she’d told me that Rivera was one of her all-time favorite clients. He’d learned how to crochet in prison—using plastic hooks he bought with commissary money—and liked to make hats and gloves. Stimson said Rivera had crafted a few pieces of outerwear for her young children, which drew compliments from strangers. “Straight from the ADX!” she would boast.

I didn’t receive any knitted items from Rivera, but his letter was courteous. “I honestly thought that when my trial was over I’d be forgotten,” he wrote. His handwriting was a series of printed block letters that resembled tiles on a Scrabble board. “I don’t even know how to reply to your letter. You have to understand one thing about me, any time someone takes interest, the first thing I think it must be a set up.” After spending more than 35 years behind bars, Rivera added, “you start to be a little leery of people.” He said he wanted to consider my request some more before making his decision. Since Christmas was coming up, he wished me happy holidays.

“I honestly thought that when my trial was over I’d be forgotten.”

The next letter arrived several weeks letter. Rivera again thanked me for my interest but declined an interview. The main reason: He wanted to protect Santiago. “If you’d want to make me look good to your readers, someone has to look bad. I rather die a thousand deaths than to do that to my codefendant, after all if it wasn’t for him you’d be trying to write Mr. Torrez story now,” he wrote. “This is my life and even though I would love to put my story out there so people could learn of the injustice in here, I’d be putting myself in a bad spot.”

In other words, Santiago had defended him, but people on the outside, who can’t fathom what life is like inside the ADX, might not understand why. “We live in a different world in here,” Rivera wrote.

I sensed another message, too. Maybe Rivera couldn’t risk violating the codes of the Mexican Mafia, including its version of the First Commandment: La Eme comes before everything else. Thou shalt have no other gods before the gang.

Rivera signed the note, “With much respect, Silvestre.”