After Trial Begins, Prison Staffer Pleads Guilty in Institutional Sexual Assault, Contraband Case
October 3, 2012 at 6:00 AM by Jessica Shirey
CLEARFIELD – A State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale drug and alcohol counselor accused of engaging in sexual relations with an inmate and also supplying he and his cellmate with cellular phones entered an open guilty plea Tuesday afternoon in Clearfield County Court.
Rachelle Autumn Thompson, 48, of Philipsburg, openly pleaded guilty to weapons or implements for escape and contraband/telecommunication devices to inmates prohibited. The commonwealth withdrew three counts of institutional sexual assault against Thompson.
Clearfield County President Judge Fredric J. Ammerman explained Thompson’s sentence would be determined by the court since it was an open guilty plea. Her sentencing will occur following the probation office’s pre-sentencing investigation.
Further, Thompson is not permitted to work in any correctional institution during her parole period. She remains free on $50,000 unsecured bail pending her sentencing.
Clearfield County District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. explained that although the institutional sexual assault charges were felonies, they were probation eligible. He said the misdemeanor charges for which she pleaded guilty to carry a heavier sentence.
“She’s looking at a minimum of nine months to a maximum of 10 years,” he said. “That’s what we wanted. She can’t appeal now. Once she gets sentenced, this case is over. It was a great outcome.”
At the same time, Shaw believed if the trial had continued, he would’ve come away with a conviction.
Before the commencement of the trial Tuesday morning, Shaw indicated to Ammerman that he wasn’t certain if co-defendant Jason Campbell planned on testifying during the trial. Campbell invoked his Fifth Amendment right after testifying about his cellmate at the preliminary hearing in January. At the hearing, Shaw presented an immunity order for Campbell’s testimony, which meant he wouldn’t be incriminated further by his testimony.
Campbell refused to testify and was found in contempt by Magisterial District Judge Richard Ireland, who subsequently fined him $1,000 and sentenced him to an additional one year in prison. During case arguments in April, Ammerman signed Campbell’s immunity order in case he’d change his mind and decide to testify during the trial.
Ammerman had Campbell appear before him prior to the jury entering for the trial’s commencement. He was aware the commonwealth had him on its witness list. Ammerman explained to Campbell that he didn’t have any right to refuse, as he’d been granted immunity. Campbell still refused to testify.
Ammerman advised Campbell that he’d been previously held in contempt for refusing to testify at the preliminary hearing. He said he intended to impose a further sentence if he refused to testify at the trial. At that point, Ammerman permitted Campbell to speak privately regarding the matter with a member of the public defender’s office.
Upon reentering the courtroom, Campbell told Ammerman he wasn’t willing to testify at the trial. Ammerman found Campbell in contempt and imposed a minimum sentence of six months to a maximum sentence of one-year to be served consecutive to any other sentences.
Ammerman advised Campbell he had until the commonwealth completed its case to change his mind. If he would agree to testify, Ammerman said he’d vacate his imposed penalties for contempt.
“I would rather die than testify against this woman,” said Campbell.
Prior to Thompson’s guilty plea, jurors heard from several prison officials involved with the case.
Correctional officer Mark Eger said at approximately 9:15 p.m. Sept. 9, 2011, he was handing out account statements to the inmates at SCI-Houtzdale. He observed one inmate, Maurice Carter using a cellular phone in Cell 54, which housed Carter and Campbell.
Sergeant Andrew Frederick received the report about Eger observing an inmate with a cellular phone at approximately 9:45 p.m. at which point he passed the information to his superiors at SCI-Houtzdale.
Assigned to the security office, correctional officer Brian Hall was directed to search Cell 54 at 6:30 a.m. Sept. 10, 2011. He and his partners strip searched Carter and Campbell and then separated them.
During the cell search, Hall discovered a box of laundry detergent on a shelf. He said the box had been sealed with toothpaste so that it appeared unopened. Hall found a cellular phone inside the laundry detergent box.
After the search, he said Carter and Campbell were handcuffed and lodged in the restricted housing unit.
Also assigned to the security office, correctional officer Brian Maines was directed to search Cell 54. He discovered two cellular phone chargers and a cellular phone after locating them on a shelf above the sink, where they were inside laundry detergent boxes.
Lieutenant Kenneth Shea monitors the safety and security at SCI-Houtzdale. At 6:30 a.m. Sept. 10, 2011, he received an e-mail alerting him that an inmate had a cellular phone. He directed a search team to Cell 54 after which he received two cellular phones and chargers.
Shea photographed the contraband and logged them in as evidence. He partially assisted the Clearfield-based state police with their investigation and interview process.
Intelligence Captain Byron E. Brumbaugh Jr. said he’s charged with handling investigations and security at SCI-Houtzdale. He wasn’t working Sept. 10, 2011; however, he’d received a telephone call from Shea that an investigative search had turned up cellular phones and other contraband in Cell 54, where Carter and Campbell were housed.
On Sept. 12, 2011, he examined the confiscated items and sent the cellular phones to Harrisburg for forensic analysis. He said several photographs were retrieved from the cellular phones, and Thompson appeared to be in some of them.
Brumbaugh testified that Thompson wasn’t clothed and posed in a mirror. She was exposing her genitals in the photographs, which appeared to be taken at her residence and not at the prison. Thompson was identified by a mole that appeared above her lip.
Brumbaugh told the jury Thompson was employed as a drug and alcohol counselor at the time. He said she would’ve had regular contact with Campbell, while she served as his supervisor.
Shaw then began to present a series of photographs discovered during the search of Campbell’s personal belongings. Defense attorney Ron Collins objected and claimed the commonwealth hadn’t established the foundation and connected Thompson to the photographs. He pointed out that Thompson’s face wasn’t captured in them, and they could be of any woman. Ammerman permitted Shaw to introduce the photographs.
Brumbaugh said the first photograph showed a woman’s buttocks; the woman was wearing thong underwear. On the back, it read, “To J, my future husband, put your face in this.”
In the second, he said the woman was wearing a jersey and thong underwear. The photograph was of her vaginal area. On the back, it read, “To my husband: Is this a fat enough piece of cake” for you?
Brumbaugh said the third photo showed a woman’s buttocks and on the back, it read, “To my husband, J: baby got back.” He said a fourth picture depicted a tattoo that Thompson had of Campbell’s initials on her hip. He said it was very similar to that of Campbell’s signature on his letters and other paperwork. Thompson has covered the tattoo of Campbell’s initials.
Brumbaugh said they began to monitor Campbell’s incoming and outgoing mail as a security measure. Shaw went to present a blown up exhibit of a three-page letter sent to Thompson by Campbell. However, Collins objected.
Ammerman anticipated that Collins would object to multiple exhibits being introduced by the commonwealth. He dismissed the jury to lunch so that the court could review and determine if the exhibits would be permitted.
Collins told Ammerman he objected to the letter being presented, stating the commonwealth couldn’t establish Campbell as the author.
“Campbell isn’t going to testify. I can’t cross-examine a piece of paper,” said Collins. Shaw said he wasn’t concerned regarding the contents of the letter. He only wanted to show the jury that Campbell’s signature on the letters matched that of Thompson’s tattoo.
Collins inquired about the procedure of intercepting inmate mail at SCI-Houtzdale. Brumbaugh explained the inmate gives their mail to a correctional officer who sometimes may write the inmate’s name on the mail. From there, he said it’s placed into a mailbox with correspondence from other inmates. He said the mailroom is then directed to hold out mail from specific inmates for whom they’re monitoring.
Brumbaugh said only a limited number of people handle the inmate mail. He indicated he was familiar with Campbell’s signature. Brumbaugh said he didn’t receive this particular letter directly from Campbell and doesn’t know if it was gathered from him. He identified the letter as from Campbell based upon his signature.
Ammerman also reviewed several graphic photographs that Shaw planned to present in court. After Thompson openly pleaded guilty, Shaw said Ammerman had ruled to permit the commonwealth to present these photographs.
“That’s what drove all of this,” he said. “They didn’t want any part of that. That was the turning point.”
Shaw said that Campbell is currently awaiting trial in this case. He’s been charged with terroristic threats, weapons or implements for escape, contraband/telecommunication devices to inmates prohibited, contraband/telecommunication device and harassment.
Shaw said that Campbell is currently incarcerated on murder conspiracy and robbery charges, which carry about a 20-year sentence.
In March, Carter entered a guilty plea to contraband/possession of telecommunication device by inmates. He was sentenced to incarceration at the Western Diagnostic & Classification Center in Pittsburgh for six months to two years. His sentence is to be concurrent to all other periods currently being served.