A corrections officer from Nanticoke was killed by an inmate at a federal prison in Wayne County on Monday night in what officials say was a highly unusual murder targeting a guard, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Officials say Eric Williams, 34, was killed by an inmate who used a homemade weapon at the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan, a high-security prison for men. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 11:30 p.m.
Authorities have not released the name of the attacker.
"This is clearly the darkest day in our institution's short history, and we are in shock over this senseless loss of a colleague and friend," Warden David Ebbert said in a statement.
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said the prison, which opened in 2005, remained in lockdown Tuesday and that the FBI is investigating the attack. He deferred comment on potential charges to the U.S. attorney's office, which declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
Officer Williams was working alone in a unit housing about 130 inmates and was preparing to lock them into their cells for a nightly headcount when he was attacked, said Philip Glover, the northeast regional vice president for the guards' union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals.
Officer Williams, who would have been equipped with only a radio, keys and handcuffs, was beaten and stabbed repeatedly with a homemade knife, Mr. Glover said.
When Officer Williams failed to leave the housing unit after the count, another officer grew suspicious and found him, Mr. Glover said. It wasn't clear how long it took the other officer to realize Officer Williams was in distress, he said.
An autopsy conducted by Dr. Gary Ross on Tuesday concluded that Officer Williams died from "a combination of blunt head and neck trauma and hemorrhage due to multiple stab wounds and cuts," the Lackawanna County coroner's office said in a news release. The manner of death was ruled a homicide.
25th in 112 years
Officer Williams became the nation's 25th federal corrections officer to be killed on duty since 1901, Bureau of Prisons records show.
The son of Donald and Jean Williams of Nanticoke, the fallen corrections officer is also survived by three siblings, Mark, 38; Kyle, 27; and Lauren, 23.
Officer Williams' family, in an interview at their home Tuesday morning, said three guards and the prison's warden came to the home to deliver the news to them early Tuesday morning.
Family members recalled Officer Williams as a sports and outdoors enthusiast who had made a career of serving his community and the law, having previously worked in security and as a police officer.
"He was proud to wear his uniform," Officer Williams' mother Jean, 65, said at the family's Walnut Street home. "He was a very cautious person. That's why I can't believe this happened to him. Senseless."
Family said they were told Officer Williams was attacked around 10 p.m., near the end of his shift, but had not been able to learn a lot of the details. They said he had not said anything recently about any problems with inmates.
"(The killer) is already in jail. So what's going to happen to him? No justice," said Officer Williams' sister, Lauren.
Extra officers sought
Mr. Glover said the correctional officers union has long sought to add a second officer to housing units, particularly in high-security prisons where officers supervise about 150 prisoners each. Congress, however, has failed to fund the additional positions, he said.
"In this case and in most cases, the officers are by themselves," Mr. Glover said, adding that many of the prisoners are murderers, rapists and gang members. "These aren't guys that got locked up for tax evasion."
The union is also seeking to arm the officers with at least pepper spray to give officers under attack a chance to escape, he said.
Officer Williams' family said they never imagined his life being cut short during his job as a corrections officer - a post he had held since Sept. 11, 2011. While his family knew there were dangers, they thought becoming a prison guard was safer for Officer Williams than being a police officer, along with added financial stability.
"He was a cop and said, 'I'm making peanuts to put my life on the line,' " Lauren Williams recalled. "It was more stable."
Bureau of Prisons data show that serious assaults by inmates on corrections officers are fairly common. According to its data, the bureau, which employs some 38,600 people, experienced 97 serious assaults on staff members in 2009 - the most recent year available - and 93 such assaults in 2008.
"Unfortunately, corrections is an inherently dangerous field," said Mr. Burke, the bureau spokesman. "Staff safety is one of our biggest concerns, if not the biggest."
But while assaults happen with some regularity, Mr. Burke said it is much more rare for federal corrections officers to be killed in the line of duty.
The most recent fatality was corrections officer Jose V. Rivera, killed June 20, 2008, at U.S. Penitentiary at Atwater in California. Two inmates chased him until he tripped and fell, then they fatally stabbed him with a homemade knife, according to the bureau.
The only other federal corrections officer ever killed in Pennsylvania was Robert F. Miller, a senior officer at U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg. He was killed Oct. 12, 1987, as he and three other officers were transporting an inmate to a hospital to be treated for self-inflicted injuries.
Two of the inmate's associates ambushed the group in an attempt to free the inmate, shooting Officer Miller five times and also striking another officer who survived. Officers chased the inmate and his accomplices for 11 miles before capturing them.
'Can't even grasp it'
Officer Williams' family is still trying to grasp the fact that he is gone. He recently purchased a cottage at Lily Lake in Conyngham Twp., but visited his parents every day at their Nanticoke home for lunch. While there, he would stop by his brother Mark's adjoining taxidermy shop.
"It's the worst. I can't even grasp it," Mark Williams said. "We just talked about going fishing next week."
Mark Williams said he just restored a fish Officer Williams had mounted in 1997 and showed it to him two days ago. Officer Williams planned to hang the prize catch in his cottage.
In addition to hunting and fishing, Officer Williams enjoyed playing in local soccer leagues and was a die-hard fan of the Seattle Seahawks, family said. They remember him often sharing funny YouTube videos he found online.
A 1996 graduate of Greater Nanticoke Area High School, Officer Williams earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at King's College in 2004. He worked in security for Wegmans Food Markets for more than a decade and also served as a police officer in Jefferson Twp. before becoming a prison guard.
"I want people to know who he was and that the young men who work for those prisons put their lives on the line everyday," Jean Williams said.
Family members expect to hold a wake Thursday and a funeral Friday, but plans are still being finalized.