Arrests under way in 'fight club' scandal at Corpus Christi State School

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by By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News

kvue.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:38 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 6:26 PM

AUSTIN -- Six employees of the Corpus Christi State School have been charged with injury to a disabled person, and warrants have been issued for their arrest, authorities say.

One has been arrested; three others have notified police they will surrender today.

The suspects are accused of forcing disabled residents into " fight club"-style brawls and recording them on a cellphone camera.

Timothy Dixon, 30; Jesse Salazar, 25; Guadalupe Delarosa, 21; Vince Johnson, 21; and Dangelo Riley, 22, are charged with third degree felonies. Their bail has been set at $30,000 each. Johnson is already in custody.

Stephanie Garza, 21, is charged with a state jail felony for allegedly failing to intervene in the fight clubs. Her bail is set at $15,000.

All are Corpus Christi natives, but one is out of state, Lt. Isaac Valencia said..

The news comes the day after Texas' federally mandated abuse watchdog group reported similar cases of provoked fights at two other institutions.

Beth Mitchell, senior managing attorney with Advocacy Inc., said staff at both the Mexia and San Angelo state schools have provoked physical altercations between residents in the last six months - " creating a climate where abuse is acceptable, and in these cases encouraged."

While the cases are serious, Mitchell said, they do not appear to be as orchestrated as the late-night "fight club" ring uncovered at the Corpus Christi facility.

Also, a Dallas Morning News review of employee misconduct at Texas' 13 state institutions for people with disabilities shows that at least five state school employees have been fired, suspended or demoted for instigating or allowing fights between residents since 2006.

Officials with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, who on Tuesday made surprise overnight visits to every dorm in every state school, say they have no evidence of highly organized fighting rings at other facilities. Since news of the Corpus Christi fights surfaced, they have suspended admissions to that state school and have begun installing video cameras, hiring security guards and adding overnight supervisors at all facilities.

"We have a 24-7 duty to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens of this state, and I want staff to know that the expectations at 2 a.m. are no different from the expectations at 2 p.m.," said agency commissioner Addie Horn. "If a worker sees something happen, knows something happened or hears a rumor that something happened, they are expected to report that immediately."

Cellphone video

Corpus Christi police, who uncovered the fight club by pulling nearly 20 video clips off of a discarded cellphone, said that the abuse appears to have happened repeatedly during 2008 and once as recently as January. Of the 11 current and former employees they've identified in the images, Lt. Isaac Valencia said, roughly five will probably be arrested late this week or early next week.

"When you can attack the weakest link in your community - it's just disturbing," he said. "Rest assured, we're very effective in our efforts to apprehend people."

In the Corpus Christi case, employees are thought to have orchestrated the fights, bringing residents into the common areas of dorms, provoking them physically and verbally, then raising the hands of the "winner" in victory. All residents have been evaluated by caseworkers, and none were seriously injured.

In the cases uncovered by Advocacy Inc., the independent organization that the federal government pays to monitor abuse and neglect in state facilities, staff generally encouraged one resident to beat another up, or refused to intervene when several residents ganged up on another.

"This is not an isolated problem," Mitchell said. "This type of scenario - with staff egging on client-to-client abuse - is occurring at other state schools."

The Corpus Christi news, first reported by The News, comes as lawmakers debate how to reform the state schools, which have been criticized by the U.S. Department of Justice for systemic abuse, neglect and other civil rights violations.

'Human cockfights'

"The state schools have been systematically starved of resources," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. "What we have now is so little supervision that staff are pitting residents against one another like human cockfights."

The House Human Services Committee will tackle a bill today to protect state school residents from mistreatment. It calls an ombudsman to oversee abuse and neglect investigations and would require surveillance cameras, employee fingerprinting and random drug tests. The Senate approved a version of the bill Monday.

Advocates for the disabled, who support separate legislation to start closing some state schools, will be at the Capitol today and say they won't endorse the safety bill unless it includes a minimum six-month moratorium on admissions to all Texas state schools. The groups want the schools to prove they can go that long without an abuse or neglect case before they can add new residents.

Meanwhile, the Corpus Christi allegations prompted Gov. Rick Perry's office to implement elements of the safety bill before its passage.

Perry chief of staff Jay Kimbrough, who traveled to Corpus Christi immediately after the news broke, said that he was sickened by the fight club video and that there was no time to waste securing the state schools. He said the big hole appears to be "in the wee hours of the night," where devious employees can organize fights in dimly lighted common areas.

Conditions "are not yet to the level the people of Texas demand," Kimbrough said. "It's been disgusting, aggravating, sad. ... We're going to get cameras in. And we're going to throw the book at these people."

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