NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two men, including a former correctional officer, planned to make a copy of a prison key in a plot to free Tennessee’s only female death row inmate, according to an indictment.
Donald Joseph Kohut and Justin Wesley Heflin were arrested this week in what authorities say was a foiled plot to break out Christa Gail Pike, who has been on death row since 1996 for the slaying of a Knoxville Job Corps student.
The unsealed indictment says in January, Kohut and Heflin, who worked as a guard at the Tennessee Prison for Women where the 36-year-old Pike is held, arranged to trace a prison key and have it copied to be used in the escape attempt.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has said an escape was not imminent and investigators found out about the plot early.
Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Cindy Dunning declined to answer questions about whether any keys had been copied.
“The details of the investigation, especially those pertaining to internal processes and security procedures of the prison, are not being disclosed in order to maintain not only the integrity of the investigation but the security of the institution,” she said in an email.
Kohut, 34, of Flemington, NJ, was arrested on Tuesday at his home and has waived extradition. He is expected to be brought to Tennessee within about 10 days.
Pike, originally from West Virginia, was sentenced to death in 1996 for the slaying of a fellow Knoxville Job Corps student. Colleen Slemmer, 18, was stabbed and beaten by Pike and Tadaryl Shipp, Pike’s boyfriend at the time, on the University of Tennessee’s agricultural campus in January 1995.
Prosecutors have said the motive for the slaying was a love triangle with the two women and Shipp, who was sentenced to life in prison. The two carved a pentagram into Slemmer’s chest, and investigators claimed Pike, who was 18 at the time, took a piece of the victim’s skull for a souvenir.
The indictment doesn’t reveal much about Kohut, who works as a personal trainer in New Jersey, but he was apparently very close to Pike. According to Dunning, Kohut visited her at the women’s prison in Nashville 26 times between July and January.
Bill Deni, Kohut’s attorney in New Jersey, said Kohut didn’t make a statement to police after his arrest on Tuesday, but has been cooperating with authorities.
Deni said Kohut will retain a different attorney to represent him in Tennessee, but said Kohut is eager to be sent to Tennessee to address the charges against him. He is being held at the Hunterdon County Jail waiting for Tennessee law enforcement to pick him up.
Deni said he did not discuss the merits of the charges against him, which include bribery and conspiracy to commit escape.
“He was a gentleman from the time I spoke with him on the phone,” Deni said of Kohut. “He’s well respected by the personnel at the jail.”
TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said Kohut became acquainted with Heflin during his many visits to the jail and bribed him with gifts like a Gibson guitar and a canoe, which Heflin sold for cash.
Heflin was hired by TDOC in 2009 and terminated early this month. His father, Johnny Heflin, has said he has never gotten in trouble before his arrest. Heflin, who was living in Chattanooga, turned himself in to police on charges of bribery, misconduct, conspiracy to commit escape and facilitation to commit escape. He is being held in prison in Nashville and is being housed alone for his protection.
Pike, who could also face charges related to the escape, is currently being held in segregation. While on death row, she has been allowed visitors, but is not allowed physical contact and speaks with her visitors through glass. She is allowed also to receive calls while in jail and her mail is searched for contraband, but TDOC does not track or log inmate mail.
This isn’t the first time that Pike has gotten into trouble while in prison. In 2001 Pike nearly choked inmate Patricia Jones to death with a shoe string. She was convicted of attempted first-degree murder on August 12, 2004 and received an additional 25-year sentence.
Pike is due to appear in a Nashville court on April 2 for a post-conviction relief hearing in the attempted murder case. Helfin is due for an arraignment on March 28.
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