LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Trial has begun for the last of three men charged with killing a prisoner found strangled to death at the Dona Ana County Detention Center nearly seven years ago.
Three prisoners who were in the cell with Philip T. Gantz, 32, of Roswell, were charged with killing him. Prosecutors said Gantz was assaulted because he was providing information about that area’s drug trade to authorities and was to testify in a pending federal case.
Co-defendants Glynn Dell Cook, 35, and Walter Melgar-Diaz, 28, entered plea agreements and are cooperating with federal prosecutors.
The trial for the third man charged, Paul O. Smalls, 44, is expected to finish this week, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported (http://bit.ly/uirWkE). The federal charges carry a life sentence.
Smalls’ lawyer, J.D. Herrera, tells The Associated Press that his client wasn’t involved and maintains his innocence. The other two men could get lesser charges if prosecutors ask a judge to take their cooperation into account.
Cook, of Hobbs, N.M., was being held on possession with intent to distribute more than two pounds of marijuana and more than 400 grams of methamphetamine. Melgar-Diaz, a felon with a conviction in Iowa for burglary and theft, was awaiting deportation after being found near Deming crossing into the United States. Smalls, who had worked as a county detention officer from 2002 to 2003, was being held for raping and severely beating his then-wife.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges the three began plotting how to kill Gantz the day after he arrived at the county lockup in December 2004.
According to authorities, Smalls and Cook are alleged to have pinned down Gantz as Melgar-Diaz held a plastic bag over his face. He was found covered with a blanket after missing breakfast Dec. 30, 2004.
The death was thought to be medically related because he was in a medical unit being treated for severe asthma, but an autopsy revealed he had been strangled.
Smalls, Cook and Melgar-Diaz were charged with conspiracy, retaliating against a witness, tampering with a witness and killing a person aiding a federal investigation in 2006. Conviction on the last charge alone could mean life in prison or the death penalty, but prosecutors decided not to seek death.
The Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Department turned over the case to the FBI to avoid a conflict after Gantz’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county. That case is on hold until the federal criminal trial against Small ends, said attorney Jess Lilley of Las Cruces, who is representing Gantz’s family.
“We feel the detention center was negligent in ensuring Gantz’s safety, considering the status and the nature of his incarceration,” Lilley said.
A Gulf War combat veteran with the Navy, Gantz, 32, was arrested in 2003 for trying to ship meth at a UPS store. He was booked into the county jail that August. In May 2004, Gantz warned jail officers that a former inmate at the county jail had put an $80,000 price tag on his head for being an informant.
A single officer was assigned to patrol two separate areas in the jail’s medical unit during the overnight shift the night of the killing. The county also reported 35 vacancies at the jail the day of Gantz’s death. Jail administrators later instituted a mandatory overtime policy to help deal with the officer shortage.
Herrera said Smalls did not take the same plea deal offered to his co-defendants.
“My client refuses to take a plea because of his insistence that he was not involved,” Herrera told the AP. “He had no motive; he was just not involved.”