Trial for inmate accused in SCI Houtzdale riot begins

State Police gather outside the SCI Houtzdale in April 2015 after an incident that left several staff members injured.
State Police gather outside the SCI Houtzdale in April 2015 after an incident that left several staff members injured. Centre Daily Times, file

The trial for a state prison inmate accused of assaulting corrections officers during a riot began Monday in Clearfield County Court.

Norman Wothman, 52, is charged with three counts each of aggravated assault, assault by prisoner, simple assault and harassment, as well as riot, disorderly conduct and several counts of criminal conspiracy.

The charges stem from an incident at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale in April 2015 after which four corrections officers had to be taken to UPMC Altoona for treatment. The facility was on lockdown for about eight hours.

Wothman, who is serving a 70- to 140-year sentence for seven brutal rapes in Philadelphia in 2002 and 2004, has been moved to Rockview state prison, according to court records.

Wothman, who is representing himself, began his opening remarks by saying he wanted to tell his side of the story. He pointed to the national news stories of officers shooting or assaulting black men. Stating that the last prison riot in Pennsylvania was 30 years ago, he went on to say this is because black men are willing to take so much.

“While in prison, we are in a dangerous environment,” he said, adding that the danger comes from “each other.” But, he said, when inmates fight, the corrections officers take this as a chance to “beat the hell out of us.”

He claimed he was trying to help that day and that he was not conspiring with anyone.

“I went by myself and told him (the officer) to stop,” he said.

Wothman acknowledged that he could be seen punching an officer in the video footage, when he thought he had only slapped him. But he said he was so angry he “kinda blacked out.”

He said “I have no reason to lie or an ulterior motive.”

He noted that if convicted of all the charges against him, he could be sentenced to more than 200 years in prison in addition to his already lengthy sentence.

“I could have taken a plea for 20 to 30 years and left,” he said, but he wanted “to tell the truth.”

The first witnesses were the officers who were assaulted that day as they tried to contain one inmate who had assaulted another inmate.

Former corrections officer Ralph Dickson, who recently retired from the prison, testified he was in the south yard of the prison observing the 300 to 500 inmates when he saw an inmate throw a baseball into the face of another inmate, who then fell to the ground. The inmate, identified as Richard Adams, then started kicking the fallen man. Dickson called the assault in and went to contain Adams.

District Attorney William Shaw Jr. asked if Dickson had anything such as a baton, spray or gun to defend himself. Dickson confirmed he didn’t have anything but handcuffs, a radio and gloves on his duty belt. He explained he usually is able to talk people down or get them to comply with his verbal commands.

Dickson said Adams walked away from him. He said he told Adams to stop, but he would not listen. Dickson said he followed Adams as he continued to try to get him to turn back or talk to him. Two other officers, Sgt. John Ames and corrections officer Wesley Davis then arrived.

Adams turned to Ames, threw his coat down and took a fighting stance, Dickson testified.

Dickson then reportedly tried to restrain Adams and take him to the ground. He said the three men were able to get Adams to his knees and tried to get him flat.

Dickson said he then heard another radio call saying the inmates are coming and then saw a “swarm” of inmates coming at them. Adams pulled away as the other inmates pulled on him. They dragged Dickson along before he was kicked in the head. He felt other kicks before he lost consciousness.

Several other officers testified that they saw Wothman in the brawl.

Lt. Brian Sheesley said the last thing he remembered was giving orders to Adams to “cuff up.” The next thing he knew he was on the ground in the fetal position being kicked and punched. He admitted he was not sure at the time if he was going to survive.

When Wothman started questioning him about the events, Sheesley said, “I remember you grabbing me, screaming in my face.” He also made a point to comment that none of the officers struck Adams.

Sgt. Seth Burggraf testified that he ran into the yard after hearing there was a fight. When he arrived at the scene, he saw one officer down with blood under him.

When he reviewed the video with Shaw, Burggraf pointed out when Wothman punched him. He tried to punch back and fell down after someone else punched him. He said he didn’t remember much after that.

Capt. Edward Miller testified that he was called into work because of the riot. He said they pulled all the staff from the yard. They were able to remove some of the inmates, but 257 of them refused to come in and threw rocks at the staff, he said.

“It was the first time we ever lost an area of the facility,” he said. Harrisburg was notified and corrections officers from other facilities and state police troopers were brought in to secure the facility. It was locked down until the last inmate was escorted out of the yard at 10:45 p.m., he said.

The trial, which was originally scheduled for five days, continues Tuesday with the defense presenting more of Wothman’s side of the story.

Inmates Adams, 34; Yafest Oliver, 27; Isaiah Samir Lakeem Hall, 25; Aki D. Jones, 39; and Bahair Stafford, 28; face similar charges.