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Utah inmate who won $1.4M award in rape case found dead in her cell

Published September 21, 2012 9:44 pm

Utah State Prison • Police say there is no sign of trauma but that the woman had a "complicated" medical history.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Unified Police are investigating the death of a Utah State Prison inmate who won a $1.4 million civil lawsuit after being brutally raped by a Corrections officer and feared retaliation.

Priscilla Elizabeth Chavez, 29, was found dead in her cell in a special-care unit at the prison Friday around 6 a.m. There were no obvious signs of trauma, but Chavez did have a "complicated" medical history, said Unified Police Officer Levi Hughes. The medical examiner is conducting an autopsy, but results won't be available for weeks, he said.

But the troubled woman's mother and sister said Friday they don't understand how Chavez, who they said had serious mental-health issues and was on suicide watch, could have died while under constant supervision.

"They could have saved her life," said Irene Chavez, her mother. "They let her die. I am so upset. I knew she was going to die."

Irene Chavez said another inmate wrote recently to report her daughter was being heavily medicated and kept in her cell. She also was being physically abused, the inmate wrote in the Aug. 29 letter.

"As I write this letter, she has been beaten and cuffed and is in shackles. She talks about killing herself daily and no one seems to care," the inmate wrote. "I do not personally know her or her crime or her mental health, but no human being should go through what your daughter is going through. Please help her."

Irene Chavez last talked to her daughter about two months ago but said she was aware she was being heavily medicated; and about two weeks ago, Chavez had to be transported to the hospital because her heart stopped, Irene Chavez said.

Francine Chavez shared a letter her sister sent to her attorney recently pleading for help.

"I'm having a hard time. I'm going crazy. I can't take it any more," Chavez wrote. "I need to see you before it's too late."

The Department of Corrections issued a statement Friday offering condolences to Chavez's family and staff who knew and worked with her. As for Chavez's concerns about retaliation, the department said it 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," the statement said. "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."

Chavez had been in and out of state custody since her teens. At age 16, she landed in adult court after assaulting a counselor at a youth prison. She was moved to an adult jail but again assaulted jailers on several occasions.

According to court records, Chavez, then 19, was serving a sentence for assault by a prisoner at the Utah State Prison in 2002 when Corrections Officer Louis James Poleate attacked her. Poleate took Chavez out of her cell on the pretext of taking her to the infirmary. Instead, Poleate took Chavez to a secluded gate house and "viciously" raped her while she was still shackled, according to court records.

Poleate, who had only been employed at the prison a few weeks when the attack occurred, was initially charged with a first-degree felony rape but pleaded guilty to a lesser count of third-degree felony rape. Poleate went to prison in 2003 and was released five years later after serving his full sentence.

Chavez filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Poleate and the Department of Corrections. In an out-of-court settlement, the department paid Chavez $25,000 without admitting any liability. Poleate represented himself and lost by default after failing to properly respond to the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled in Chavez's favor in February 2010, noting she suffered serious physical and emotional damage in the attack, which also exacerbated psychological damage from sexual abuse she had experienced as a child. He said the attack had led Chavez to consider suicide and to distrust authority figures.

Waddoups said the award was warranted because Poleate showed no remorse and to send a message to other officers "before they violate inmates' civil rights by raping them in the future."

Chavez wrote Waddoups a letter two days after his ruling, saying she was about to be returned to the prison. At the time, she was awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy to disarm a peace officer.

"I fear going back to the prison, which would put me into an emotional distress and possible retaliation," she wrote.

brooke@sltrib.com