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Behind walls, trouble built to a brutal end

Last of three parts

On the day before he died, John J. Geoghan savored an unusual prison pleasure.

He won his regular game of rummy in the back of the jailhouse gym.

"That was a rarity for John," said Robert K. Assad, a Fall River arsonist who shared Geoghan's protective custody unit at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center and was a regular at the card game. "We had to teach him how to play."

The gleaming maximum-security prison that straddles the Lancaster-Shirley line had been the defrocked priest's home since April.

There, he would complain to his fellow inmates and his lawyer, he was still an occasional target of verbal taunts from prisoners who reviled him as a brand of criminal worse, in their eyes, than a killer: a pedophile.

But he was relieved to be 18 miles and a world away from MCI-Concord, where he felt some correction officers took pleasure in tormenting him.

From his new home in Cell No. 2 -- within 20 feet of the guards' duty station -- Geoghan watched approvingly as his new keepers patrolled one of the most secure units in one of the state's newest prisons.

"The unit is run strictly," Geoghan wrote in May to a legal adviser, in correspondence reviewed by the Globe. "There is more isolation than Concord but far greater security.

"I have experienced no problems with the guards within the unit. They do their work well. . . . A very few make snide or inappropriate remarks. Only a few directed at me."

The two-tiered cell block was designed to hold 64 inmates. By mid-April there were 21, leaving the upper tier of cells vacant. Geoghan was part of a small community of felons who needed special protection from the prison's general population. For the most part, Geoghan kept to himself, content to remain in his cell, even when he was not locked in, inmates said. When he was out, he was often on the telephone with his sister, his closest surviving relative.

"He talked about his sister Catherine, and I said: `Wow. You look just like your sister,' " one inmate, also a sex offender, said in a telephone interview from the prison. "He said: `That's my best friend I have. She's a wonderful lady. She's sticking by me.' "

The inmate, in prison for 30 years and on Geoghan's unit until June, said Geoghan told him his lawyer believed he had a good chance of having his conviction for groping a 10-year-old boy overturned on appeal.

"He had a fear of dying in prison like most people did," said the inmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He used to say how he would sometimes call home just to get his old answering machine message. He said, `To hear my voice there just reminds me of when I was there.' "

But his homestead, a well-tended Colonial on Pelton Street in West Roxbury, where Geoghan and his sister had hosted dinner parties and family gatherings, was a melancholic memory now.

His new home was a narrow room with a metal bunk, two shelves, a toilet attached to a small sink, and a footlocker for his belongings. The mirror on his cell's wall was a small piece of shiny metal that provided a blurred reflection.

Three or four times a week, Geoghan would join a four-person card game in the back of the prison's gym. The inmates, like schoolboys in a lunchroom, always took the same seats.

Geoghan sat across from Assad, 26, the slightly built arsonist who set fire to a Fall River apartment house in 2001. Robert Malloy, a 59-year-old child rapist, sat to Geoghan's right. To his left was Ronald J. Kelley, 50, a former Gill police chief who pleaded guilty to larceny in 2001 and was convicted of rape in 1991.

Assad, in an interview last month, said Geoghan was "real laid back." Occasionally he would accuse Assad of cheating. A smiling Assad acknowledged to a recent visitor that, in fact, he sometimes did.

During the games, Assad said, Geoghan would sometimes deride those who had accused him of sexual abuse as participants in a "money scheme" who had "come out of the woodwork."

Other times he would ruefully recall his alleged harassment by correction officers at Concord.

At Souza-Baranowski, there were only occasional echoes of such misery.

"Some [correction officers] show `palpable distain' [sic] and prisoners feel it," Geoghan wrote in mid-April. ". . .So far I have been treated well other than the `expected' under breath mumbling from a few [correction officers] as I pass in movement from unit to gym or library. I can handel [sic] that."

One inmate said correction officers would sometimes use the gym's public address system to assail the former priest.

"God's going to get you."

"You're going to burn in hell."

The prison slang for a child molester is "skinner." To taunt Geoghan, some officers used the word in a parody of the opening of a prayer used in Catholic confession.

"Bless me, Father, for I have skinned," the guards would announce, the inmate said.

By late May, a new prisoner had moved into the protective custody unit. Joseph L. Druce was assigned to Cell No. 3, one door down from Geoghan.

Druce did not play cards. But one inmate said he would linger nearby, and seemed to enjoy rankling his new neighbor.

"Why don't you kill yourself and save the state some money," Druce told Geoghan, according to one inmate's account. "I'm glad I wasn't an altar boy."

For Geoghan, Druce's arrival marked the beginning of trouble in the special cellblock known internally as J1.

`He didn't bother no one'

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center sits on a rolling 18-acre slice of land that straddles the Lancaster-Shirley line a few hundred yards off Route 2.

It is named for James R. Souza, 29, a correction officer, and Alfred Baranowski, 54, a prison cement shop instructor, who were murdered by an inmate at the old Norfolk Prison Colony on July 31, 1972.

The prison that bears the slain correction workers' names is the antithesis of the prison where they died. The $110 million maximum-security prison is a brightly lit place with shiny, tiled floors, where 1,000 prisoners are kept in a computer-controlled, year-round climate of 68 degrees.

Before the unit that housed Geoghan opened last spring, the union representing guards pressed to increase the per-shift staffing from two officers to three. It was, they argued, an issue of safety.

"They basically just chuckled and said, `We're not doing that,' " said Robert W. Brouillette, business agent for the correction officers union.

In its formal reply, the state said its plan for the prison system's second protective custody unit represented a "relatively minor" change from the way other units were operated. "The . . . unit [J1] will be staffed with the same number of Correction Officers as the regular units at SBCC and will house the same number of inmates [not more than 64]."

The two correction officers assigned to Geoghan's unit used a touch-screen computer to open and close the cell doors and to control the unit's lights, power, fire alarm, and public address system. Another computer kept track of disciplinary reports, scheduling, and the head counts for which prisoners had to stand in their cells at 6:30 and 11:10 a.m. and 4:20 and 9:40 p.m.

Inmates say the unblinking eye of the prison's 366 cameras makes prisoners and correction officers alike think twice before breaking the rules, much less resorting to violence.

Jordan Rice, a 30-year-old murderer and arsonist, said Geoghan, who had struggled in his 13 months in Concord, seemed to have adapted to a more tranquil life behind bars. He finally seemed to have mastered the unofficial prison "code" of keeping your head down if you want to be left alone.

"He was very thick-skinned," Rice, who befriended Geoghan, said in a telephone interview from prison.

Rice said an inmate once asked Geoghan, "How many little boys have you touched in your life?" Geoghan, he said, smiled thinly and kept walking.

"He didn't bother no one," Rice said. "One time after I got to know him, I told him I had been around [convicted child molester Gerald] Amirault, I've been around [child killer Charles] Jaynes. And I said, `You don't fit the criteria.'

"He said: `Thank you for saying that. And even if I did touch a little boy's buttocks, it doesn't warrant me getting 8 to 10 years.' "

Rice said he shared his newspaper with Geoghan and the two talked politics. Geoghan, he recalled, thought the Democrats made a mistake choosing Boston, a liberal enclave, for their 2004 national convention. "And neither of us liked Howard Dean because he's pro-abortion," said Rice, who was raised a Baptist.

Once, Rice said, he pressed Geoghan about his sex life, and Geoghan told him, "I've never been with a woman." The defrocked priest said that a beautiful but disturbed woman from a "prominent Massachusetts family," had once pursued him romantically, but that he had managed to fend her off.

Rice said Geoghan, who had celebrated his 68th birthday on June 4, was one of the lectors during church services in the prison's 75-seat cinderblock chapel. He would explain to Rice the mysteries of the rosary and biblical teachings.

But just before 7 p.m. on Aug. 1, Geoghan lost Rice as a cellblock companion.

That evening, there was a fight in the gym. Rice accused Druce of stealing away his usual handball teammate, a 35-year-old inmate named David A. Boyce.

"I said, `No. You're not punking me off my handball partner,' " Rice said he told Druce. Druce replied with an obscenity.

Raised voices turned into raised fists. "I beat him up," Rice said.

Both inmates were hauled off to segregation in another unit, elsewhere in the prison. Geoghan would never see Rice again.

Three weeks later, when Druce returned to the J1 unit, his fellow inmates said he appeared to be a changed man.

"He was withdrawn," Roy L. Hunt, a 45-year-old rapist from Brockton, said in an interview at the prison. "When he got like that you more or less stayed away from him because you don't want to incite him."

`Joe's in there killing him'

Druce returned on Friday, Aug. 22, but he no longer lived in Cell No. 3, next to Geoghan. He was relocated down and across the unit, to Cell No. 21.

Inmates said they detected a new steeliness in Druce. He appeared, one said, to be stalking Geoghan with his eyes.

Just hours after he returned, Hunt said, Druce visited his cell and brusquely asked to borrow his copy of the Wall Street Journal. Hunt said Druce liked to track the stock market.

The next morning, a bright and sunny Saturday, Hunt saw Druce again. He was seated at one of the tables on the "flats," the common area just outside the cells. Normally, Hunt said, he would have joined Druce for conversation. But Druce's body language made it clear that he wanted no visitors.

For breakfast that morning at 7:30, the prison served oatmeal with figs and bananas, and coffee. The prisoners, as is the rule in the protective unit, then returned to their cells to eat.

One inmate, who left the unit June 4, said the cell doors were opened in blocks of 10 or 11. Prisoners in each group would get their meals and return to their cells, where they would be locked in before the routine was repeated for the next group. But never, he said, were all the cells opened at the same time.

But on Saturday, Aug. 23, when lunchtime arrived, the guards on duty -- who inmates said worked the unit mostly on weekends -- opened all 24 cells at once, authorities said. It is a practice that authorities said was improper and must be reexamined.

Just after 11:30 a.m., two inmate workers, earning $2 a day, served the meal from a cart in the middle of the cellblock. Lunch that day was cheese pizza, tossed salad, and fruit punch.

"I was two guys behind Druce in line," Hunt said. "He got a pizza with soft cheese. He wanted a burnt piece, so the guy gave him another tray, and he goes back to his cell."

Assad said he stood near Geoghan in line. He said he was accustomed to Geoghan's generosity. "I asked for a root beer barrel one day, and he gave me a bag," Assad said.

That Saturday, Geoghan gave his card game partner half of his lunch. "John gave me one of his pieces of pizza," Assad said. "They give you two, and he ate one."

Then Assad and Geoghan walked away to eat in their cells.

Finished within a few minutes, the prisoners were let out of their cells again at 11:48 a.m. to return their trays to a portable carrier.

By then just one officer was on duty in J1. His partner had left to distribute medication off the unit, not an uncommon practice.

Assad, watching from near the guards' duty station, said he saw Druce pacing back and forth not far from Geoghan's door. "That didn't look right to me," he said. Druce was some 30 yards away from his cell on the other side of the unit.

Assad said he reminded Geoghan to notify the officer at the desk that he intended to play cards that afternoon.

"John came out, and I said, `You going to sign up for gym today, you ol' bastard?' And he said, `No cheating today,' " Assad recalled.

They were the last words Assad heard from Geoghan.

When the former priest returned to his cell, Druce followed him in, just before the doors were automatically closed, authorities said. He brought with him the simplest of murder weapons: a T-shirt to bind his victim's hands, and stretched-out socks -- tied around his waist -- to strangle Geoghan, investigators said.

The early moments of the attack went undetected by the sole correction officer then on duty, but not by two inmate workers who were on postlunch cleanup duty.

One of those workers, interviewed in prison, described the attack for the Globe on condition that he not be identified. The inmate, who has been questioned by authorities, said he fears retaliation by other inmates for helping alert the guards.

He gave this account:

The workers were cleaning up, emptying trash into a bin about 30 feet from Geoghan's cell, when the inmate's partner told him that he'd seen Druce in Geoghan's locked cell when he peered in through the cell's narrow window.

"At first we're in front of the trash and [he] looks over and sees Druce in his cell," the inmate said. "I said . . . `Why don't we mind our own business?' Then I said, jokingly, `Maybe he's in there having sex with the guy.' "

But after his partner moved in for a closer look, he said he saw Druce strangling Geoghan on the cell's floor.

When Druce discovered that he'd been spotted, he yelled, "Get away from the cell!"

"Joe's in there killing him," the inmate's partner told him. "And I looked at him and told him to stop [kidding] me."

The correction officer, still unaware of the assault, was going back and forth from the guard's duty station, or podium, to an office behind the desk.

"He wasn't distracted," the inmate said. "He was just doing what cops do."

The workers moved toward a janitor's closet. They worried aloud about violating the prison code that promised brutal retribution on those who inform on other inmates. But then, he said, they remembered that the prison's security monitors had almost certainly spied them looking into Geoghan's cell.

"Damn, the cameras saw you go over there," the inmate said to his co-worker. "I said, `Come on. Let's go tell the cop.'

"We told him, `Listen, Joe's in there killing the dude.' He looked at us. He thought we were kidding."

By then, Druce had been alone with Geoghan for about five minutes.

The inmates asked the officer to give them enough time to return to their cells, so their part in sounding the alert would not be detected by other inmates. "But before we got to our cells, [the officer] was already in front of Cell 2," the witness said.

The correction officer screamed for Druce to stop. He ordered him to open the door. But Druce, who had used a paperback book, along with Geoghan's nailclipper and toothbrush, to jam the door's sliding mechanism, did not comply.

At 11:57 a.m., according to official incident reports obtained by the Globe, the officer sounded an emergency alert.

"Geoghan was lying face down, unresponsive in the middle of the floor," one officer reported. "[Druce] was lying face down by the cell door, looking up at us. . . . I gave inmate Druce several orders to remove items that were used to jam the cell door. He removed a pair of nail clippers and threw them out under the door.

"The door was still jammed, and inmate Druce refused to remove other items, stating something like, `Don't hurt me . . . It's not against you.' "

Responding to the alarm, correction officers from other units rushed in. By this time, Druce had been alone with Geoghan for 10 minutes, more than enough time, authorities said, to bind Geoghan's hands behind his back and strangle him.

Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte said Druce used Geoghan's shoe to tighten the tourniquet, and a pillow case to "strengthen the strangulation."

To ensure Geoghan did not survive, Druce also allegedly jumped on Geoghan's chest, according to accounts from correction officers and a member of the emergency response team.

"He did have a razor," Conte said shortly after the attack. "We have found the razor. His intent was to do further harm." Druce intended to castrate Geoghan, authorities have concluded.

At 11:59 a.m., officers on the unit called for the prison's "halligan tool," a large crowbar, to force the cell door from its track.

Six minutes later, the prison's hospital unit received a report of a medical emergency on the J1 unit. A response team rushed to the cell block.

Ambulance dispatched

An ambulance from Lancaster was dispatched to the prison at 12:03 p.m.

After several attempts, the door to Geoghan's cell was forced open at 12:07 p.m. Druce was placed in wrist restraints and taken to the prison's hospital unit.

Medical responders began nonstop cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Geoghan.

"I observed that the inmate's hands were bound behind his back and what appeared to be a pillow case and a shoe around his neck," one report says. "The inmate's face and head were purple. I removed the pillow case and sneaker from his neck and . . . what appeared to be a T-shirt from around both wrists."

A nurse tried to clear Geoghan's airway. He was placed in a cervical-spine collar, put on a back-board, and then removed from his blood-stained cell on a stretcher. He was not breathing and had no pulse.

As the emergency response continued, a correction officer obscured the windows of other inmates' cells with magnetic covers.

"We knew there was no air getting into him," one emergency responder said. "He was dead when we got there."

Geoghan's stretcher left the unit at 12:58 p.m. and within three minutes his ambulance was speeding west down Route 2.

"They threw electronic monitoring pads on him [at the hospital], and it was straightlined on the monitor," a member of the emergency response team said. "That's when the doctor asked the paramedic how long he had been down."

It had been about an hour.

"And then the doctor said: `Straight line. Pronounce him.' "

John J. Geoghan was pronounced dead at 1:17 p.m. by Dr. Richard Freniere at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance Hospital in Leominster, according to an incident report. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be ligature strangulation and blunt chest trauma, broken ribs, and a punctured lung.

As word of Geoghan's killing slowly spread, media crews began arriving in the prison's parking lot. Security was tight; prisoners said they knew something unusual had occurred.

When one inmate asked a correction officer what had happened, he said the guard replied in crude but clear prison code.

"He said, `Put it this way: The diddler's dead,' " the inmate later told Lauren Petit, a staff attorney with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.

Among Geoghan's former cellblock companions, his fatal attack struck like a thunderbolt. "Most of the unit was very upset about it," Hunt said. "If we had known, we would have done something to stop it, because John didn't really deserve it. It's kind of sickening to have somebody of John's age being overpowered by someone like Druce."

Druce has told authorities that he planned his attack for more than a month. He spent his time in segregation after his fight with Rice in the gym puzzling out the details. Authorities have theorized that he perfected the method of jamming Geoghan's cell by trying it first on his own.

His lawyer, John H. LaChance of Framingham, said Druce was sexually abused as a boy by older men. He claims to have been beaten by his father. According to psychiatric testimony and documents from his 1989 murder trial, Druce was obsessed with sex and violent fantasies as a boy. In the days after the killing, Druce's father, Dana Smiledge of Byfield, said his son had a hatred for homosexuals. Smiledge has had no comment since.

Druce, 38, told legal advisers that Geoghan's open discussion of sexual attacks on children enraged him and provoked his attack.

In a September letter to the Catholic Free Press of Worcester, Druce said he had overheard conversations in prison in which sex offenders expressed "no remorse, only gloating and reminissing [sic] over past victims. This was motivation."

A state inquiry into Geoghan's murder is underway, with a report expected soon.

Edward A. Flynn, the state's public safety secretary, said the report will trace "the historical paths of how they ended up in the same unit at the same time in such a situation where Druce could have access to Geoghan."

Part of that probe is expected focus on whether officials at Souza-Baranowski ignored warnings that Assad said he and other inmates had sent them about Druce's volatility.

Assad said that Druce approached him in June with a scheme Druce hoped would earn him a transfer out of the unit. Massachusetts has an agreement with federal authorities that allows for prisoners deemed a threat to others to be moved into federal custody.

"He said he would come into my room, tie me up, and jam up my door," Assad said. "He said he'd do it on a weekend when there were no administrators here."

Assad said he only halfheartedly considered Druce's plan before rejecting it. "He told me that Geoghan was his second choice," Assad said in an interview.

He said when he alerted a member of the prison's security staff about Druce's scheme, he dismissed it saying: "He's probably joking."

Druce has told his lawyer that Assad's account is a jailhouse lie.

"Druce and Assad were not on good terms, and I would doubt very much if Druce would have said anything to Mr. Assad," LaChance said in an interview.

Correction officials also have privately questioned Assad's veracity.

But a former senior Department of Correction official who is familiar with the inquiry said there is evidence that Druce's attack should not have come as a surprise to prison officials. Had they searched Druce's cell, he said, they would have found notes and the book he had pre-cut to help jam the door.

One inmate, who asked not to be identified, has told a lawyer for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services that he was there when Assad issued his warning about Druce in June.

"There were rumors going around the unit that Joe was going to attack John," Assad said.

Department of Correction Commissioner Michael T. Maloney told a state legislative committee in October that Geoghan's was the first homicide in Massachusetts' prison system since 1996.

"We had one homicide in seven years," said Maloney, who recently departed on medical leave and will not return as commissioner, according to a department spokesman.

"That is one homicide too many. But this is corrections. We have the most violent population in the state of Massachusetts. . . . This is a human system. Sometimes people make mistakes."

Silent prayers

Just hours after John J. Geoghan was pronounced dead, the Archdiocese of Boston issued a simple statement.

"The Archdiocese of Boston offers prayers for the repose of John's soul and extends its prayers and consolation to his beloved sister, Cathy, at this time of personal loss," the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, the church spokesman, said.

The next day at Sunday Mass, Geoghan's classmates from the St. John's Seminary Class of 1962 -- alerted to his death by email from their class secretary -- offered silent prayers of their own for a man they recalled as meek and self-effacing.

"He was just a guy who was very friendly, almost overly friendly, and in need of encouragement," said the Rev. Maurice V. Connolly, one of Geoghan's seminary classmates. "He was in some ways a loner. I think he was always looking for affirmation of some kind. He would bend over backwards to be friendly or do a favor to gain approval."

Maryetta Dussourd, who said Geoghan molested her three sons and her niece's four sons, received news of the death of the priest she had encountered at St. Andrew's Church in Jamaica Plain with something akin to shock.

"Oh, my God," she said. "How could that happen? He was supposed to be in a more secure place. What survivors wanted was justice. Not something like this."

At Geoghan's private funeral at Holy Name Church in West Roxbury, the parish of his youth, nearly a dozen seminary classmates concelebrated his funeral Mass, said the Rev. Richard J. Butler, secretary of Geoghan's seminary graduating class and now a pastor in Stow.

During his homily, a presiding priest acknowledged Geoghan's painful life's journey and the suffering endured by his sister. Catherine Geoghan, dressed in a black suit, listened from a front pew near her brother's mahogany casket.

The Rev. Joseph H. Casey, Geoghan's spiritual adviser and a part-time philosophy instructor at Boston College, offered a remembrance of his friend. Casey said Geoghan had been falsely accused.

"Father Casey said that he was probably the only person in the church who believed totally in Father Geoghan's innocence," Butler said. "It was the wrong forum."

After the hourlong Mass, Geoghan's 10-car funeral procession drove to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy's parents, four Boston mayors, a cardinal, and several bishops.

Under a sunny sky and surrounded by some three dozen friends and relatives, John Geoghan was laid to rest.

"When he was alive, almost no one could find one ounce of humanity in him," said Geoffrey C. Packard, Geoghan's trial lawyer, who now serves as a district court judge in Malden. "He was perceived to be one-dimensional and purely evil.

"And it's sad, and ironic in a way, that it is his murder that has caused people to more closely examine the conditions of his confinement and his treatment and his frailty."

End of series.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

Authorities say Joseph L. Druce sneaked into Geoghan's cell, bound him, and strangled him to death.
Authorities say Joseph L. Druce sneaked into Geoghan's cell, bound him, and strangled him to death. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)
Geoghan was killed in an area of Souza-Baranowski identical to the one above. His cell would have been number 2.
Geoghan was killed in an area of Souza-Baranowski identical to the one above. His cell would have been number 2. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

The series
Disciplinary reports
Between April 2, 2002, and Oct. 2, 2003, John J. Geoghan received at least 11 disciplinary reports for violating the code of prison conduct at MCI-Concord.
Letters from Geoghan
The Globe obtained several letters written by Geoghan in prison.
Death reports
The Globe obtained incident reports on Geoghan's death filed by Correction officers at the Souza-Baranowski facility.
 Read the incident reports
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