Ogden woman raped in prison found dead in her cell

Sep 21 2012 - 9:04pm

DRAPER -- An Ogden woman who was raped by a prison guard and won a $1.4 million judgment for the attack was found dead in her prison cell Friday morning.

"My understanding is, she was found dead in her cell," Utah State Prison spokesman Steve Gehrke said of Priscilla Chavez, 29.

As is policy in all deaths at the prison, the investigation has been turned over to an outside agency, he said, in this case the Unified Police Department, a multicity police agency in Salt Lake County.

Chavez had been in and out of the state prison and the state mental hospital since age 16, according to court and prison records.

Her family feels her death is the result of retaliation for the rape case and a long history of fighting with police officers.

"I know in my heart they killed her," mother Irene Chavez, 65, of North Ogden, said Friday morning.

She said she was visited by two prison officials who broke the news of her daughter's death, then cried with her.

Eight cases involving assaults of a police officer in 1999 first sent the 5-foot-4 Priscilla Chavez to the state prison, court records show.

In 2001, she was raped by a prison guard, who was fired and sent to prison himself for the offense in 2003.

In 2010, a federal judge awarded Priscilla Chavez $1.4 million in damages against the guard, Louis Poleate, for the rape.

The decision came just days after Priscilla Chavez was sent to prison again by the Ogden courts on a long list of charges, chiefly assaults against police dating back to 2007, as well as one case of assault of a mental health worker.

The state prison settled its part of the federal lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Irene Chavez said she believes her daughter was sexually abused as a child, leading her to talk to herself incessantly at age 11.

Priscilla Chavez was in and of jail and mental health treatment since she was 14, Irene Chavez said.

"She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, you name it."

Her daughter also had seizures and recently developed a brain tumor behind one eye, she said.

"She's not suffering anymore. Maybe God said it was time for her to go."

She said she lost contact with her daughter at the prison and spent several weeks earlier this month trying to get some kind of status report from prison officials.

She was fearful after receiving a letter from an inmate who said her daughter was being abused by guards, hog-tied at one point, and had been admitted to the University of Utah Medical Center.

Her efforts to reach the caseworker assigned to her daughter were not successful until last week.

"She just said Priscilla's fine, doing OK. She had like an attitude on her," Irene Chavez said. They only talked for a few minutes, she said.

Detective Levi Hughes, spokesman for the Unified Police Agency, confirmed Friday that Priscilla Chavez was found dead at 6 a.m. in her cell in the Olympus facility at the prison.

Olympus is the mental health unit and includes cells with cameras inside for inmates on suicide watch.

Hughes said he believed, but couldn't confirm, that Priscilla Chavez was in one of the so-called camera cells.

"I haven't heard if videotape is available of that night," he said.

Priscilla Chavez was in a cell by herself, Hughes said, discovered during the prison's normal round of bed checks.

There were no obvious signs of trauma or cause of death, he said, with an autopsy planned for Friday or today.

Results likely would take weeks, Hughes said.

"We know the family is quite concerned," he said. "If we see something that suggests suspicious circumstances, that will be investigated ...

"All those questions her mother is asking we will be asking ourselves as well."

Hughes said the prison has advised investigators of the inmate complaints Priscilla Chavez made over the years.

"I'm aware of the complaints she has logged, and I see nothing where she was concerned for her safety."

He said he couldn't confirm any trips to the university medical center.

Priscilla Chavez's sister, Francine, hopes the state Office of Crime Victim Reparations will help her family.

"We have no money to bury Priscilla," she said.

She said she has spent 15 years in prison herself, on drug and theft charges, and witnessed her sister's mistreatment by guards.

"They'd beat her so bad. They rolled me up and moved me to a county jail so I wouldn't see it."

Gehrke said the prison wouldn't be commenting out of concern of compromising the investigation, but decided to release the following in response to the claims of the Chavez family:

"The (corrections) department offers its condolences to the family and to our own staff who knew and worked with her (Priscilla).

"The department takes submitted reports and concerns seriously. If there are specific reports that would enable the department to further investigate any claims being made, the agency certainly would do that here as it routinely does in any case.

"Corrections will continue to fully cooperate with Unified Police as they conduct their investigation. Again, the department would emphasize its condolences to the family and to staff dealing with this difficult situation."

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