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Trial by Fire 

Was Frank Williams a victim of the justice system? Or just the unluckiest inmate to ever walk out of a state prison?

Frank Williams was running late on July 16, 2002, as he hurried up Allegheny Avenue, walking to his weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He had to hurry: As a convict on a "pre-release" program, he'd be forced to return to prison if he didn't make the therapy session.

As it turned out, few people have ever paid a steeper price for running late.

By the time Williams crossed Western Avenue on the city's North Side, "I was almost there," he recalls. "I didn't see anything coming. I heard it and then I felt it."

Pop! Pop! Pop!

What he heard -- and then felt -- were gunshots. He's not sure how many there were, exactly: He didn't have time to sort it out.

"All of a sudden, I could feel the bullets rip into my back and I felt this burning sensation move through my body," Williams says. "The pain was horrible laying there on the sidewalk. The worst feeling was that I knew I was probably as good as dead."

Williams, 48, didn't die that night. But sometimes he wishes he had.

"After what I endured," he explains, "there were nights that I would have preferred death to what I was actually going through."

Williams was rushed to nearby Allegheny General Hospital, though he remembers little of that night, where he was listed in critical condition. In the days that followed, his only thought -- when he was coherent enough to have one -- was to simply stay alive. It certainly never occurred to him that he might be thrown in jail as a result of the shooting. After all, he was the victim.

But after Williams was hospitalized for 46 days, records show, state prison guards took him back to prison in handcuffs. He spent the rest of his convalescence in two state prisons: SCI-Pittsburgh, the now-shuttered North Side facility also known as Western Penitentiary, and SCI-Coal Township. There he recovered from multiple gunshot wounds, alternating stints in a prison infirmary with stretches of time in a Restricted Housing Unit -- better known as solitary confinement.

Williams' offense: being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- literally. According to a discipline report made out by prison authorities after the shooting, Williams had "violat[ed] a condition of pre-release": "refusing to attend a mandatory program" and being "presen[t] in an unauthorized area."

"Can you believe that?" Williams asks. "I get cited for bleeding to death on the sidewalk."

If such treatment seems heavy-handed to Williams, he says the police should have been more heavy-handed with the men who shot him. Williams says he didn't know his shooters, but he later learned they were driving a stolen car -- and that at the time he was shot, they were being tailed by city police.

This past summer, Williams filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) for denying him due process and sending him back to prison on what he says are bogus infractions. At this point, details of the case are murky: Prison officials, citing the pending litigation, aren't talking. And the state Attorney General's office, which will defend the DOC against the suit, says that while the suit was filed months ago, it hasn't even been formally notified of the suit, let alone prepared a response.

But Williams feels that this time, it's the corrections system that needs to be put on trial. "What's going on in this prison system, the things they do to folks once they get them behind bars is illegal," he says, spitting out every word. "This didn't just hurt me, or injure me; it ruined my life.

"I want to kill someone for what they did to me."

When Williams lifts his shirt, you can immediately see four scars -- one bullet hole and multiple surgical scars. There is also a scar from the tracheotomy tube he was given to save his life. But the major mark is the surgical incision that goes from the top of his pants to the bottom of his chest: a crooked, winding scar that looks like it never really healed properly.

But he is warier about revealing the details of private life. In fact, these days, it's hard to get Williams to talk about anything except the claims in his lawsuit.

Sitting in his Rankin home -- a modestly furnished, well-kept apartment -- he'll tell you he has lived in the area all his life. But ask about how his shooting and incarceration affected his family, and he'll only say, "It's in turmoil."

Nor will he say much about the drug-trafficking charge that landed him in prison. He wasn't guilty, he maintains, but took a plea bargain in 1999. He was sentenced to two to four years in prison, and was released in June 2004.

A month-and-a-half later, he was bleeding on a North Side sidewalk.

In that short month-and-a-half, Williams was trying to turn his life around. During that time, he was an inmate on "pre-release" from the DOC. Those on pre-release are still for legal purposes convicts, living under state supervision.

Williams himself was living at the Ridge Avenue Community Corrections Center, on the North Side, a kind of DOC-run halfway house whose mission is to prepare "offenders for successful transition back to their families and re-entry to the community." He was working as a salesman for a home-improvement company and attending all mandatory meetings and counseling sessions. If he'd skipped work or missed a meeting, he would have violated his release and been sent back to prison immediately.

"I was doing everything they asked me to do," Williams says. "I was just trying to get my life back when it was taken from me."

Williams was allowed to leave the center to work and attend mandatory counseling, as long as he signed out properly. And Williams had been doing just that until the night he was shot.

As it turns out, at the time of the shooting, Williams' assailants were under police supervision, too. In fact, police were able to compile a first-hand account of the incident, based on eyewitness testimony from two detectives, Matthew Redpath and Brett Schmidt, who were patrolling the area as part of a police "impact squad" assigned to high-crime neighborhoods. As a police report explains:

<p> "[Officers] observed a maroon Chevy Prizm traveling down Western Ave. crossing Allegheny Ave. in front of them at a slow rate of speed. Once the Prizm started into the intersection they observed the actor ... in the left rear passenger seat reach in front of the right rear passenger with a dark colored handgun in right hand and started firing five to six shots out the right rear passenger window at the victim (Williams, Frank). The victim then dropped to the ground as they were turning left onto Western Avenue behind the Prizm."

Williams' shooter was later identified as Lennell Ptomey, and the driver as Darryl Strong. The two men were apprehended a short time later as the officers gave chase.

Ordinarily, such quick police work would be praiseworthy. And in fact, press accounts lauded the officers for nabbing Ptomey and Strong.

"Undercover police score a shooting arrest trifecta," reads the headline from the July 18, 2002, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Over a two-week period, the story noted, undercover officers had witnessed three shootings firsthand, including Williams', and captured the gunmen immediately afterward.

Redpath and Schmidt "were on patrol in an unmarked car ... when the car in front of them slowed down," the account read. "They watched as [Ptomey] fired a handgun multiple times out the window, hitting [Williams] in the stomach. The pair, joined by other [police], chased the stolen car, which crashed into a fence in the 200-block of East Ohio street."

The story quoted Police Chief William Mullen lauding his officers for their conduct: The speedy arrests in the Williams shootings and two others, said Mullen, "says a lot about the officers in terms of their courageousness, training and their ability to be in the right place at the right time."

But to Williams, the right time for police to act was before the shooting started. As press accounts noted, Ptomey and Strong were in a stolen car. And Williams says police should have recognized, and acted upon, that fact sooner.

"I guess finally shooting me was a big enough crime to make an arrest for," he says.

In court, Ptomey contended that Williams' shooting was a mistake: He claimed he was shooting at another car that allegedly fired shots at him. Williams was just caught in the crossfire.

"There was never any intent to shoot Mr. Williams," attorney Scott Coffey wrote in a brief on behalf of Ptomey.

Though the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is not named in Williams' lawsuit, department spokeswoman Tammy Ewin declined comment for this story.

Williams himself was never charged with any wrongdoing involving his attackers. Indeed, his record is clean except for the offense that landed him in jail.

While it may sound strange to think of cops idly watching someone drive a stolen car -- assuming that's what happened -- experts on police procedure say the practice is not unheard of.

One such expert, Michael Levine, works as a private expert witness and testifies during trials about police procedures. Before that, Levine spent 25 years as a top undercover agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and says he either carried out or supervised some 10,000 undercover operations. While he can't know why the officers didn't take Ptomey and Strong into custody sooner, he says the officers could have had dozens of reasons not to intervene immediately.

"There were many times in my experience where you witnessed crimes, but couldn't blow your cover to do anything about it," Levine says. "There were times as an undercover officer where you have a specific goal in mind and jeopardizing that investigation could put other lives at risk."

However, he says, "I can say with some degree of certainty that they had no idea that these perpetrators had plans to shoot someone, because in that case the law mandates that they step in."

In any case, Ptomey, the shooter, and Strong, the driver, were each charged with eight counts, including criminal attempted homicide, aggravated assault, carrying an unlicensed firearm, and attempting to elude police. In subsequent jury trials, both men were acquitted of some charges. But in June 2004 Ptomey was convicted of aggravated assault and the firearms charge; he received five to 10 years in prison. (He is appealing his sentence.) Strong was acquitted of all charges except attempting to elude police. He received six months of probation for his part in the shooting.

For his part in the shooting -- being shot -- Frank Williams ended up spending more time in prison than the accomplice of the man who shot him.

"I don't have many memories from those days," says Williams of the period after the shooting.

One memory he does have, however, involves what he calls his "abduction" from Allegheny General Hospital by prison officials, who hauled him back to nearby SCI-Pittsburgh on Aug. 30, 2002.

"They put me in a prison jumpsuit, shackled my hands and feet, put me in a wheelchair and took me out of there and stuck me in a prison hospital," Williams says. He says he was laying on a gurney in the prison infirmary when he was given a "misconduct report" dated July 18, outlining the reason for his return to the prison.

According to the report, Williams had "violat[ed] a condition of pre-release" by "refusing to attend a mandatory program" and being "presen[t] in an unauthorized area."

"The 'unauthorized area' was apparently the sidewalk I was bleeding to death on," Williams says.

Indeed, Williams could hardly avoid the intersection of Western and Allegheny. As a look at a map shows [see illustration], it's hard to find a more direct route from the Ridge Avenue Corrections Center, where Williams was staying, to Bidwell Church, where his Narcotics Anonymous meeting was held.

On the other hand, according to the report, Williams signed out of the center at 7:50 p.m. for the meeting, which was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Williams was shot at about 8:20.

The corrections center and the church are slightly more than a half-mile apart. By signing out of the center at 7:50 p.m., Williams risked showing up late for his meeting even if he hadn't been shot. In any case, the DOC report said, "The attached police report indicates that Mr. Williams was in an unauthorized area at 2020 hours (8:20 p.m.) and that he failed to pertain to his required mandatory NA meeting."

When asked about why he was still walking up Allegheny Avenue 20 minutes after his meeting was supposed to start, Williams declined to explain. "This is all part of the lawsuit and will be decided in court," he said.

Being shot might seem punishment enough for running late. But that was only the start of Williams' problems.

Ordinarily, DOC regulations require that convicts "shall be personally served with the misconduct report the same day the report is written." Prisoners are then entitled to a hearing to contest the allegations against them. But Williams contends that meeting was never held -- at least not while he was conscious.

William had been in critical condition when the report was written, and as a notation on the report makes clear, there was "a delay in serving this misconduct due to Mr. Williams' medical status."

However, the report also includes a blank space where a date and time for his hearing was supposed to be scheduled. Williams says the hearing never took place after he regained consciousness. Nor should it have taken place before, he argues: DOC regulations also require that "[i]f the inmate is physically or mentally unable to participate in a hearing, [officials] shall postpone the hearing until the inmate is able to participate."

In the lawsuit, attorney John Ceraso contends that the hearing was simply never held, and that Williams has sought in vain for a formal justification for his reinternment. Ceraso contends that according to prison regulations, "If an inmate is found guilty of a violation he is to be provided a written summary of the hearing which includes the facts relied upon by the hearing examiner to reach the decision and the reason for the decision. ... The plaintiff to this day, despite many requests by him, has not been provided with a copy of this summary."

Williams suspects that the DOC was in a hurry to return him to prison because the state didn't want to continue to pay his rapidly rising hospital bills -- and that the allegations in his misconduct report were just excuses for treating him on the cheap inside the prison infirmary. "I was costing them too much money," he says. "I was very seriously injured [and] I believe my health and well-being was traded to save a buck."

Records viewed by City Paper show that Allegheny General billed the state $365,000 for medical care provided to Williams in the six weeks after his shooting. The DOC's current budget is $1.15 billion, which covers the cost of housing nearly 44,000 inmates.

That's not enough to provide world-class health care. Williams says his wound remained open when he returned to the prison and after two months in the prison infirmary, he was placed in the Restricted Housing Unit. He says he was still in pain from his wounds -- and his cell in the RHU wasn't conducive to rehabilitation.

"I laid in this cold, damp hole like a dungeon, on a steel bunk with a thin mattress and open wounds on my body," Williams says. "I was treated like a fucking animal." At times, he says, he even shared his cell with rats.

SCI-Pittsburgh has since been closed, and "We make sure we have qualified medical contractors to attend to the needs of the inmates," says Sheila Moore, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. "We have strict policies of sanitation and cleanliness at all of our facilities and it is also up to inmate to keep cells clean." State prisons, she adds, "are inspected every three years by the American Correctional Associtation to make sure we maintain these standards."

But while prison-rights advocates and ex-cons interviewed by CP don't have first-hand knowledge of Williams' experiences, they say his story isn't implausible. Prison medical care is not widely esteemed, and conditions at SCI-Pittsburgh, which was the oldest prison in the state system, were notorious, with a sizable population of roaches, rats and mice.

Cathy Wise, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, says that while she has not heard stories specific to SCI-Pittsburgh, she has heard numerous stories of poor medical treatment for inmates nationwide.

"I do believe that generally, the prison medical staffs do the best they can," Wise says. "But in most cases they don't have the resources they need to do their job."

Williams says that in December 2002, he was sent to SCI-Coal Township (located about 70 miles northwest of Harrisburg). No reason for the "administrative transfer" was given on his transfer document. At Coal Township, he alternated between a solitary cell in the RHU, the general population and the prison infirmary. Records show he also received treatment at Wilkes-Barre Hospital. But his lawsuit contends that while incarcerated, Williams was denied by the state his chance to appeal his incarceration.

"While in the restricted housing unit he was denied visitation, the ability to make phone calls, the ability to participate in activities and programs at the correctional facility and was denied access to materials to defend against the violation charge," the lawsuit states.

Williams was finally released in July 2003. He was paroled to a relative's home and began receiving medical care at the VA Hospital in Oakland. But the scars haven't left him, and Williams' resentment and distrust festers as well.

"I know they wanted me to die in that prison, but it didn't happen," he says.

It may be awhile before Williams gets a chance to prove that.

Sheila Moore, a spokeswoman for the DOC, says the department won't comment on pending litigation. She does say, however, that there is more to the Williams case than meets the eye.

"I understand the way it sounds, but the picture here is bigger than you can imagine," she says, somewhat cryptically. "But in light of him filing a lawsuit, I can't say anything to jeopardize the defense of the case."

When asked whether the sole reason Williams was sent back to prison was the misconducts from the night of the shooting, Moore answered "yes."

But what about Williams' claims that he never got a chance to contest those allegations in a hearing -- and that if a hearing was held, it must have been while he was recovering in a hospital room from critical gunshot wounds?

"The procedures are very clear and the three-tiered process is followed very closely," Moore answers. "It's a very objective procedure, it's not just an open-and-shut case."

Moore referred further questions to Mary Friedline, the lawyer in the state's Attorney General's office who would handle the case. Friedline, too, declined comment. In fact, she says that although the case was filed in Allegheny County nearly three months ago, she still hasn't been formally served notice on it -- something a plaintiff is required to do.

Ceraso, Williams' attorney, did not respond to repeated phone calls about the case's status.

Regardless of when the case starts to wind its way through the legal system, Williams plans to stick around long enough to see it through.

"It's only by the grace of God that I'm still alive," he says. "And by his grace, I will make sure these motherfuckers don't do this to anybody else ever again."

click to enlarge The scars left on Williams' abdomen after being shot
  • The scars left on Williams' abdomen after being shot

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