Video reveals details surrounding inmate's death in the Red Onion rec yard
Killer apparently manupilated his prey into a deadly scheme
By: Michael Owens
Published: November 13, 2011
Robert C. Gleason has been convicted of murder three times.
* May 8, 2007 – Shoots to death truck driver Michael Kent Jamerson in Amherst County, Va.
* April 24, 2008 – Pleads guilty to Jamerson’s murder.
* May 8, 2009 – Strangles cellmate Harvey Watson at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap.
* May 24, 2010 – Threatens to kill again unless sentenced to death for Watson’s killing.
* May 28, 2010 – Pleads guilty to Watson’s murder.
* July 28, 2010 – Strangles Aaron Alexander Cooper at Red Onion State Prison in Pound.
* April 22, 2011 – Pleads guilty to Cooper’s murder.
* Sept. 6, 2011 – Twice sentenced to death.
* Nov. 7, 2011 – Virginia Supreme Court receives case for automatic review.
Inmate witness statement
This evidence photo from Red Onion State Prison shows the noose.
Robert C. Gleason Jr. talks to investigators in a videotaped interrogation.
This image from a Red Onion State Prison surveillance camera video.
For more than an hour, there were no prison guards in sight.
The Red Onion State Prison surveillance camera reveals a recreation yard void of anyone but five inmates in five cages as Robert C. Gleason strangles Aaron Alexander Cooper using a braided bed sheet threaded through the chain-link wall between them.
Each time Gleason returns to Cooper’s slumped body, slightly hidden by the shadows of the prison wall behind them, the three other inmates in the yard busy themselves with pull-ups from the woven, steel-rod ceilings of their cages – in an apparent attempt to turn their backs on the action.
Each return means another tug on the noose around Cooper’s neck, and no one wants to be a part of another inmate’s vendetta.
The death marked the second prison strangulation by Gleason’s hands in little more than a year; the first was at Wallens Ridge in nearby Big Stone Gap, Va. At Red Onion, Cooper was the first of two inmates killed inside during the past 18 months, the most recent one on Sept. 6.
Absent from the grainy, black-and-white Red Onion surveillance video are the corrections officers tasked with patrolling the state’s only supermax-security prison.
They are seen escorting Cooper, wearing leg irons and handcuffs, into one of the cages at 12:29 p.m. Then they leave, returning only after Gleason and the other inmates have sat down cross-legged on the concrete and started a conversation.
Investigator’s notes show that guards carried out a formal count of all inmates at 1:28 p.m., and an informal count of those in the rec yard at 1:29 p.m. Even at that time, evidenced by the surveillance video, there were no guards in the recreation yard.
Fifteen minutes later, however, the guards discovered Cooper’s lifeless body.
Gleason, 41, is a Massachusetts native, an award-winning tattoo artist and former hit man now on Death Row at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly, near Virginia’s southeast corner.
Fellow inmates often call him Boston Bobby because of his stereotypical r-dropping accent. Sometimes he signs off hand-scrawled letters as “The Mick.”
An aging moonshiner once testified in court that Gleason was the man called upon when someone needed to be left behind in the woods over a debt. Gleason once described how he broke a corpse’s legs just to stuff the stiffening body in the trunk of a car. Another victim was said to have been killed over a $5 debt after calling Gleason a sucker for forgiving the debt.
Gleason is to be executed for Cooper’s death at the prison in Pound, as well as for the May 8, 2009, strangulation of Harvey G. Watson, 63, at Wallens Ridge. A circuit court judge will set the date once the Virginia Supreme Court has reviewed the case.
At Wallens Ridge, guards found Watson’s hogtied-and-beaten body 15 hours after he was strangled by his cellmate, Gleason. At least one inmate standing count – requiring the inmate to either stand or sit up for guards – missed Watson’s corpse, tucked away under his bunk blanket.
Gleason asked for the death penalty soon after charges were filed in that case. Fearing he wouldn’t get it, Gleason, in May 2010, threatened to kill again.
During his sentencing hearing in early September, Gleason, acting as his own lawyer, asked then-Red Onion Warden Tracy S. Ray why no one took the threat seriously.
“It’s not a matter of ignoring you or thinking you were bluffing because, really, we didn’t even know you,” Ray testified. “The systems were in place that had managed … people who had killed other inmates and/or staff.”
The warden said Gleason possessed a mastery level of manipulation that no one in the Virginia’s Department of Corrections had ever confronted.
A glimpse of those skills was first witnessed during the Watson murder, when hours passed without guards noticing that something was amiss.
Gleason, at his sentencing, said: “I manipulated staff at Wallens Ridge to falsify standing count.” Gleason told the guards that Watson didn’t feel good; and the guards didn’t investigate.
With Cooper, the setup was more subtle.
Weeks before the rec-yard attack, the two inmates concocted a scheme in which Gleason would strangle Cooper only until he passed out. That way, according to the plan, Cooper’s mom could sue the prison for placing her only son within reach of a man as dangerous as Gleason.
So, on a hot summer day in 2010, Cooper sat down on the rec-yard concrete with his back against the woven, steel-rod wall of his cage. Gleason stood behind him, on the other side of the chain-link wall, with that braided strip of torn bed sheet in his hands.
“That had never been seen,” Ray testified about Gleason’s ability to convince someone to slip a noose around his neck. “It took everyone a while to get their mind wrapped around that act.”
Later, prison officials learned that Gleason had smuggled the braided noose into the rec yard – despite a strip search – by wrapping it in an extra shirt he carried in his hands.
In the background of the video, a handful of guards can be seen hovering around Cooper’s body at 1:46 p.m. More than an hour has passed since Cooper sat down on the concrete and Gleason first tugged on the noose.
Another group of guards appear in the foreground of the video, staring above and just to the side of the wall-mounted surveillance camera. That’s the location of the window to the guard booth, which fronts a series of cells inside the building. The window is at the booth’s rear.
The Department of Corrections refused to discuss its policy and procedure for manning the booth or watching surveillance televisions.
But former Red Onion inmate John “Mac” Gaskins was willing to share his recollections of prison procedure. Gaskins finished serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery in August. He spent four of those years at Red Onion. During an interview last week, Gaskins said he vividly remembers his time in the rec yard.
Gaskins describes the window as the size of a 42-inch flat-screen TV, with bars and a sliding glass window.
“There’s always someone in the room [guard booth],” he said. Even when the booth guard goes on break, Gaskins said, someone is supposed to step in as a temporary replacement. At least that was always the pattern the inmates noticed.
Otherwise, the guards in the rec yard can’t unlock the doors to get inside the prison, Gaskins said.
Yet testimony during Gleason’s sentencing suggests the booth was empty when Cooper died.
Marvin Rodgers was among the three inmates who witnessed the murder. He spoke to a guard in the window moments before Gleason pulled out the noose. Rodgers, who’d been tipped off about a possible attack, said he had hoped to stave off the incident.
“I kept [the guard] at the window as long as I could but she went on break,” he said. The inmates kept quiet after she dropped out of view, Rodgers said.
It’s possible the guard remained in the booth, but away from the window and was focused on the cells instead, Gaskins said.
Still, Gaskins said, the guard should have been able to monitor all rec-yard events through the television monitor wired to the surveillance camera.
“I don’t see how this could have happened with someone looking at the camera,” he said. “This raises more questions.”
“Cooper shouldn’t have put [the noose] around his neck, but Cooper shouldn’t have been around me, either,” Gleason said at the end of his four-day sentencing hearing in early September.
Inmates who testified at the hearing described Cooper as a young man who was trying to make an impression so he could be accepted and respected in the hostile environment.
Red Onion inmates called him Duck.
On July 28, 2011, exactly a year after he died, his mother’s attorney filed an intent-to-sue notice with the state Treasury Department’s Division of Risk Management. A lawsuit has not been filed.
Cooper was born in Maine, loved military airplanes, and was serving a 34-year sentence for a string of crimes that included carjacking and robbery. He landed in Virginia’s prison system in 2008 and was shipped to Red Onion after starting a fire in another prison.
Gleason wanted him dead.
Someone was going to die, Gleason had already promised that much. But who?
He’d zeroed in on two other inmates, one a black man said to commonly use racial slurs against white people. Gleason said he didn’t like hearing the derogatory “cracker” reference.
The plan was to slip into their minds the same scheme for a minor assault followed by a lawsuit.
Then Cooper ticked off Gleason.
In a letter later sent to Cooper’s mother, Gleason explained the source of his anger:
“We talk about something [and] no one was suppose to know but not even 24 [hours] passed [and he] told someone.
“I knew he couldn’t keep his mouth shut so I ask him over [and] over again if he told, he finally confessed he did but turned around again [and he] lied about how much he told.
“I told him not to lie and I’ll let it go. He kept the story.”
What did the two men talk about? A review of investigators’ taped interviews with Gleason and court testimony suggests they discussed the lawsuit scheme. Gleason said it was after he learned that Cooper mentioned the conversation to another inmate that the search for a target was over.
Also, Gleason said, someone on the outside wanted Cooper dead. Gleason was happy to oblige, he said, because that favor now owed provided the opportunity to make good on threats outside the prison walls.
To add a dimension of realism to the strangulation ruse, Gleason suggested that Cooper use a cover story so he could pass a lie-detector test after he regained consciousness and the interrogations began.
Cooper was to tell investigators that he truly thought Gleason was making a religious necklace for him, and needed it sized around his neck. Gleason also told Cooper to hold his breath until he passed out. That way, he could pass a polygraph if asked whether he faked it or was actually choked until he lost consciousness.
Hours after the murder, in a videotaped interview with prison investigators, Gleason revealed his true intentions.
Investigator: “Did Cooper know he was going to die today?”
Gleason: “If he did I don’t think he would have put it around his neck [Gleason smiles]. No, he did not know he was going to die today.
“I told him I was going to make a necklace for him, a religious necklace … I said hey, put this around your neck, I got to mark this off. ‘Don’t kill me,’ [Cooper said]. I was ha, ha, ha [expletive].”
Investigator: “Did you do this today to prove a point?”
Gleason: “Oh, yeah, I definitely did this to prove a [expletive] point.”
Investigator: “And that point was?”
Gleason: “I still can get to people.”
Cooper might not have been the only person to fall under Gleason’s manipulative spell that day.
For the attack to work, both attacker and victim needed to be in adjoining cages. Court testimony revealed that by picking their own cages, without objection or concern from the guards, the inmates allowed the stage to be set for a murder.
Rodgers said he often used a rec cage near Gleason to share Snickers candy bars. So, he didn’t think twice about picking a spot next to Gleason again that day – until he stepped up to the empty cage beside his rec-yard buddy.
“When I first got out there, [Gleason] said don’t get in this cage, don’t get in this cage,” Rodgers testified in court – under questioning from Gleason.
Rodgers turned right and instead walked two doors down, he said in court. He didn’t say whether the guard mentioned anything about the sudden decision.
The Department of Corrections, responding to Herald Courier inquiries, wrote in an e-mail: “There was no policy that says an offender may choose a rec cage but each facility has a policy that makes clear that cell and bed assignments are the sole purview of the facility administration. Offender requests must be considered based on professional judgment of the offender’s motives and intents.”
The Department of Corrections also refused to state whether the guard should have been suspicious about Rodger’s sudden decision to switch cages.
“The conduct of Corrections Officers under these circumstances is a personnel matter and DOC cannot comment on personnel matters,” read an email sent by department spokesman Larry Traylor.
By the time Cooper and his two corrections-officer escorts walk into the camera’s view, only the cage beside Gleason remains unoccupied.
At 12:29 p.m., Cooper steps inside that cage and turns his back to the guards, who remove his shackles through two openings, one waist-high and one at his feet, to the left of the cage door. The guards stroll out of the picture. Cooper heads to the back corner of his cell, toward Gleason.
At 12:50 p.m., the noose slides into place around Cooper’s neck.
Former Red Onion inmate Gaskins recalled that guards conduct head counts every 30 minutes to account for inmates. The investigation report shows that a formal inmate count was completed at 1:28 p.m.
But that’s usually to look at the cells inside the prison building, Gaskins said, not the rec yard. To account for inmates in the yard, Gaskins said, a guard usually pokes a head through a door or the guard booth window every so often.
“The perception by inmates, and corrections officials alike, is that something like that is not going to happen,” Gaskins said. “There’s a little bit of complacency by everyone.”
The investigation report notes that a guard did peek into the rec yard about 1 minute after the formal count was completed and wrote that the inmates were either sitting or standing in the yard.
Still, 1 hour and 15 minutes pass before a guard again walks under the camera’s steady gaze. It is 1:43 p.m.
Guards entered Cooper’s cage three minutes later.
“The reason I knew something was going on was because of the look on [another inmate’s] face,” Rodgers testified at the sentencing hearing. “I said ‘You don’t want to look at that because it’s going to stay in your head.’”
Rodgers turned around in time to see Cooper try to lean forward, only for Gleason to pull back on the makeshift rope.
“I seen Cooper try to get away from it,” Rodgers said to Gleason in court. “He couldn’t get away from it. You had him to the fence.”
In the surveillance video, the faint images of Gleason and Cooper can be made out in the back of their cages. After several minutes, one man remains standing while the other sits down. There is movement, and then everyone seems to be still.
Eventually, Gleason walks to the front of the cage while the outline that is Cooper can be seen in the background, slumped on the ground. It is 12:56 p.m. – six minutes after the noose was first slid into place.
Rodgers said Gleason heaved on the rope, walked away when he thought Cooper had stopped breathing, and returned to pull some more every time he thought he saw signs of life.
A few times, Gleason placed a foot on the fence, gripped the rope with both hands and leaned back. He eventually tied the loose end of the rope to the fence so Cooper wouldn’t fall forward.
While on the witness stand, Rodgers spoke directly to Gleason and described the slow death in graphic detail:
“I seen you brace up on the fence … until he went unconscious. When he went unconscious, right, you held him a little longer, for like maybe three minutes, so we did another set of pull-ups.
“You tied the line on the fence, right, and left him hanging. He was raised up off the ground. His tail wasn’t on the concrete. He was raised up by his neck, his head was to the fence …
“You went back over there and you braced it and you put your foot up on the fence and you pulled him back again …
“When you let him go the second time you took his head and said ‘Who’s the dummy now, Duck? Who’s the dummy now?’”