Trial begins for 3 York County Prison guards accused of running inmate 'fight club'

Liz Evans Scolforo

Three York County Prison guards accused of running a "fight club" they allegedly called the "retard olympics" are bullies who abused their power and basically turned the prison's South Block into a fraternity house, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

York County Prison

"The frat house that these three were running ... was deplorable," senior deputy prosecutor Kelley Nelson said during her opening statement in the guards' trial in York County Court.

She told jurors that former guards David Whitcomb Jr., Daniel Graff and Mark Haynes were entrusted to protect inmates, but that "these three bullies did the opposite."

The trio, who all worked the same shift in South Block, encouraged inmates to wrestle each other and bribed inmates to engage in "juvenile antics" such as eating a spoonful of cinnamon and drinking coffee with pepper spray in it, Nelson said. Haynes even put an inmate in a choke hold for no real reason, she said.

The guards bribed the inmates with the promise of extra food and drink, which "they may or may not have received," the prosecutor said.

Nelson acknowledged the main witnesses in the case against the guards are criminals and that two of them sued York County and have received settlements.

South Block: All these antics happened in a closet located in South Block, where there was no camera to record what was happening, according to Nelson, who said all of the prison's corrections officers undergo trainings in which they are warned against horseplay involving inmates.

But defense attorneys for the three guards said their clients aren't bullies, and aren't guilty of official oppression or conspiracy to commit that offense.

Attorney Chris Ferro, who represents Haynes, said his client is quiet, reserved and meek, and likened him to a "gentle giant."

"These people are liars," he said of the inmates who will testify for the prosecution. "There is a colossal lack of ... evidence."

Attorney Korey Leslie, who represents Whitcomb, said there are cameras everywhere in the prison and that the footage is constantly monitored, and "no one noticed anything going on."

Rousted, questioned: The allegation of a fight club wasn't made until June 25, 2013, when one of the inmates, David Wright, was questioned in the middle of the night by two prison captains regarding damaged prison property, according to Leslie. Two other inmates also were rousted and questioned in the middle of the night.

"We know (prison staff) threatened them, (saying) 'If you don't tell us the truth, you're gonna go to the hole,'" he said.

Attorney Steve Rice, representing Graff, scoffed at the idea that the inmates would be testifying truthfully.

"These star witnesses for the government? They're a bunch of crooks," he said. "It didn't happen, and the government doesn't have a case."

Rice said prosecution evidence will show that inmate Wright — the prosecution's own witness — lied.

'Back it up': If prosecutors want to use admitted liars and crooks as witnesses, they "better have something good to back it up, and they can't bring it," Rice said.

Rice also told jurors that Haynes, who is Ferro's client, was threatened by superiors to implicate his co-workers.

During their opening statements, all three defense attorneys repeatedly talked about how the prosecution intends to show jurors a total of about one hour of surveillance video to try to prove its case.

But the other 39 hours of tape from the week in question — which would feature Haynes, Whitcomb and Graff at work — was destroyed, the attorneys said.

Testimony began Tuesday afternoon following opening statements and is expected to resume Wednesday morning.

Other "stupid" challenges the guards bribed inmates to take included snorting a line of ramen noodle flavoring powder, snorting crushed-up candy and drinking a gallon of milk in an hour, according to state police.

Whitcomb, 30, of Hellam Township, Haynes, 28, of Jacobus, and Graff, 40, of York, no longer work for York County, a county spokesman has said.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at