Corrections Officer Darla Lathrem never had time to hit the panic button on her radio.
The prison guard, 38, was smashed over the head with a sledgehammer, then stuffed into a mop closet by inmates at Charlotte Correctional Institution. Her radio and keys were dumped into a prison toilet.
After Lathrem’s 2003 death during a botched escape attempt, questions were raised about why a lone rookie officer was allowed to supervise five violent felons — two of them convicted killers. In the wake of the incident, the warden, an assistant warden and four officers were either demoted, transferred, reprimanded or resigned.
But one high-ranking official was unscathed: Timothy Cannon, who was another assistant warden at Charlotte. Cannon took over Monday as interim secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections after the retirement of Michael Crews.
Cannon, 53, is tasked, at least for now, with cleaning up a department that is reeling from a year of revelations about abuse of inmates by sadistic guards, security breaches, unexplained deaths, alleged cover-ups and substandard prison medical care.
Under Crews’ stewardship — Cannon was his second-in-command and considered by many the most powerful man in the department — the DOC saw use-of-force reports filed by staff climb to unprecedented heights.
Cannon, a high school graduate who took a semester of community college, will oversee a $2.1billion budget and a staff of more than 22,000 employees.
Cannon was on a trip when his new role was announced last week.
On Monday, his first day on the new job, the department declined to make him available for an interview.
Cannon climbed through the ranks of the department over a 25-year career, in contrast to Crews, who came to the Department of Corrections from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
His rise from probationary corrections to the top of the department guarantees the respect of the staff that will report to him, supporters say.
Critics, who generally do not want to be quoted by name, say he is the ultimate insider in a department that desperately needs an outsider to clean house.
Cannon’s personnel file, which was obtained by the Miami Herald pursuant to a public records request three months ago, shows that he attended Dixie County High School in Cross City and did a semester at Lake County Community College before he was hired by a logging company as the operator of a knuckleboom — a type of crane — in 1981.
Cannon joined the department in 1989 at Cross City, where he served under Jimmy Crosby, the secretary who was later jailed on corruption charges.
After Cross City, Cannon served at Taylor, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Charlotte correctional institutions, before being named warden at Hardee Correctional in 2006. In 2009, he was promoted to regional director overseeing 29 state prisons.
In 2011, he became assistant secretary for institutions and, two years later, was promoted to deputy secretary, the number two official in the department.
The personnel file provided to the Herald does not contain a single disciplinary action. It does indicate Cannon has been the subject of more than a dozen formal complaints that he condoned retaliation against corrections officers and inmates; that he used and approved of excessive force; and that he discriminated against female corrections officers. All the cases were dismissed as unsubstantiated.
His evaluations, including recent ones by Crews, effusively praise his leadership and experience with the agency.
Louie Wainwright, corrections secretary from 1962 to 1987 and a man who has known Cannon for many years, described him as “an outstanding, compassionate” leader who has the experience and integrity to lead the department.
“He’s progressed through the department, and worked his way up to deputy secretary. You don’t do that unless you prepare for that,” Wainwright said.
One of the few individuals who will publicly speak ill of Cannon is Ron McAndrew, a former Florida warden who is now a prison consultant.
He says that Cannon, as the second in command of an agency plagued by corruption, bears some of the blame for the department’s current state.
“Mr. Cannon was a James Crosby protégé, and that in itself speaks loudly,” McAndrew said. “What has happened in the Department of Corrections is as much his responsibility as it is Mr. Crews’, since he is, after all, number two in command.”
McAndrew also questioned whether Cannon has the wherewithal to run the department at a time when it is in upheaval and facing budgetary deficits.
“Running a $2 billion operation is not something that an uneducated, inexperienced CEO can do,” he said.
Cannon was profiled in a recent Mail Online article as the DOC official who attends every execution.
After attorneys for an inmate facing lethal injection sued the state, Cannon testified in detail about how the process works, including how, as the lethal cocktail is administered in stages, he will shake an inmate’s shoulders, call his name loudly and stroke his eyelashes and eyelid to ensure the condemned inmate is unconscious.
After that, there is one more step: Cannon will deliver a “trapezoid pinch,” in which he squeezes the muscle between the inmate’s neck and shoulder.
Once he and others are convinced the inmate is truly unconscious, the final, fatal doses are delivered, he told the court.