SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- One of the inmates suspected of killing a 63-year-old guard during a failed South Dakota prison break had escaped the state penitentiary two other times during his 27-year criminal history.
The state Department of Corrections says inmates Rodney Berget and Eric Robert, both 48, tried to escape shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, assaulting and killing officer Ronald Johnson in the process. The Corrections Department said the inmates were apprehended on the prison grounds and taken to a jail in Sioux Falls. They have not yet been charged in the guard's killing.
Berget has been in and out of South Dakota's prison system since the mid-1980s and is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. He was convicted of escaping from the penitentiary in 1984 while serving time on a possession of stolen property charge. Then, in 1987, he and five other inmates broke out of the same facility on Memorial Day by cutting through bars in an auto shop. Berget was caught in mid-July of that year.
John Fitzgerald, Lawrence County state's attorney, thought Berget would have no more opportunities to commit crimes after he pleaded guilty in Dec. 2003 to attempted first-degree murder for allegedly trying to kill his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend.
"It's shocking to me as a prosecuting attorney, but he's a very violent person." Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said that on June 2, 2003, Berget waited outside a house in Lead for the boyfriend to show up. Before the boyfriend could open the front door, Berget shot through the door's glass window, hitting the man in the stomach, then entered the house to try to kill him, Fitzgerald said.
According to Fitzgerald, Berget's ex-girlfriend stopped Berget when she drew a gun from the bed stand.
"When he was captured, he confessed that his intent was to go in there and kill, murder the boyfriend," Fitzgerald said. "And then he also said that his intent was to kidnap and torture the woman.
"Luckily she had a gun ... otherwise, I think, he would have got the job done."
Berget, of Aberdeen, also was convicted in Meade County for kidnapping a convenience store clerk in Sturgis. He was arrested and the clerk escaped after troopers used road spikes to stop the car near Midland.
Robert, the other suspect in Tuesday's killing and attempted escape, is serving an 80-year sentence for a kidnapping conviction. In that case, an 18-year-old woman told police a man posing as a plainclothes police officer pulled over her car near Black Hawk, told her he needed to search it and then forced her into the trunk. She used her cell phone to call for help, and she was found unharmed.
Robert, of Piedmont, pleaded guilty to kidnapping in a 2005 plea bargain.
Johnson, who worked at the penitentiary for more than 23 years, was pronounced dead at a hospital, and a second guard suffered minor injuries in the incident. The department did not release the second guard's name or further details about the escape attempt or attack.
Johnson, a father of two and grandfather of six, died on his birthday, said his son, Jesse Johnson.
"That's kind of the gut-wrenching thing about it," he told the Argus Leader newspaper.
Jesse Johnson said his father, known to friends and family as R.J., had lived through a riot at the penitentiary in 1993 and knew the danger of his job but never dwelled on it.
"He loved to relax and play with his grandkids," the son said. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody."
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said the state Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating and more information would be released once the initial investigation and charging decisions are complete.
If the inmates are charged and convicted of murdering Johnson while trying to escape, prosecutors could seek the death penalty.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the state will act swiftly to bring the accused to justice and ensure the safety of prison staff.
"This incident is a somber reminder that our prison guards put themselves at risk, every day, to protect South Dakota from our worst criminals," Daugaard said in a statement.
Before Tuesday's incident, two corrections officers had been killed by inmates in the 130-year-history of the state penitentiary, the Argus Leader reported. Corrections records show that 72-year-old Warden Eugene Reiley was killed in 1936, and officer Edward Jaworski was killed in 1951.
Johnson is the first law enforcement official killed in the line of duty in South Dakota since the 2009 slaying of Turner County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Mechels by 21-year-old Ethan Johns, who was sentenced to life.