Florida Prisons

After bungled plot, Klan-linked prison guards become inmates

From left: Charles Thomas Newcomb, David Elliot Moran and Thomas Jordan Driver
From left: Charles Thomas Newcomb, David Elliot Moran and Thomas Jordan Driver Miami

Thomas Jordan Driver wanted to kill somebody in the worst way, authorities say.

He loaded insulin into syringes and planned to inject his target with the potentially lethal drug, then leave the man face-down in a river next to a fishing pole, to make it look like an accident. He considered shooting his victim and chopping up the body. But his first choice was to “stomp” the man’s throat and kick “his teeth out.”

Driver, a Florida prison guard until Thursday, is getting a taste of life on the other side of the bars. Driver and two buddies — all of whom prosecutors say belonged to an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, were charged with plotting to kill a former inmate at a North Florida prison.

Driver, 25, David Elliot Moran, 47, who goes by the name “Sarge,” and Charles Thomas Newcomb, identified as “Exalted Cyclops” of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, each face one charge of conspiracy to commit murder. If convicted, they could get a maximum sentence of 30 years imprisonment.

The arrests are the latest blow to Florida’s Department of Corrections, which has endured months of news stories about unexplained inmate deaths and allegations of systemic corruption. Moran and Driver were, until Thursday, guards at the state’s Reception and Medical Center, a prison that processes incoming inmates and provides medical care to others.

Located in Lake Butler, it houses a maximum of 1,503 inmates. Newcomb was a former prison employee who was let go during his probation period.

The three are alleged to have plotted the murder as retaliation for a fight between the unidentified inmate, who is African American, and Driver. In a secretly recorded conversation with a federal informant, Driver complained that the inmate had a contagious disease and that the prisoner had tried to infect him by biting him. “That blood work … I had to go through,” Driver said. “The mental stress of it … I wouldn’t want anybody to have to go through that.”

Gerald Whitney Ray, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Driver and Moran were booked into the Union County Jail in Lake Butler. Newcomb, he said, was taken to the Alachua County Jail in Gainesville. All three were arrested on Thursday morning.

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said that the three were “part of a white supremacist group that was targeting inmates.”

She called the incident “disquieting.”

The Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is headed by a Missouri man, self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona, who has made headlines lately for trying to modernize his Klan group while remaining faithful to its white-supremacist origins. The Knights’ website allows followers to join the group online, and provides a 24-hour “Klanline” for prospective members. Ancona’s “official” Twitter account has 741 followers. Ancona wears a white robe and poses before a flaming cross in his profile picture.

In recent months, the group’s activities have consisted largely of distributing leaflets, including a flier last November in which the group threatened to use “lethal force” against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri — the group called them “terrorists” — who were holding rallies following the shooting death of an African-American man by a white police officer.

Though Ancona claims his group has attracted thousands, a spokesman for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which long has tracked hate groups, said he would be “shocked if there were 100 members.”

Last year, the law center counted only two chapters of the Traditionalist American Knights, one in Prattville, Alabama, the other at the group’s headquarters in Missouri, said Mark Potok, a senior fellow for the tracking organization. Potok described Ancona’s group as “very small and quite weak,” and said he had no record of a Traditionalist American chapter, or “klavern,” anywhere in Florida.

In Central Florida, Driver, Moran and Newcomb allegedly referred to each other as “brother,” used the code word “church” for Klan activities, described secret sympathizers as “ghouls,” and used the greeting “KIGY,” for “Klansman, I greet you.” After the federal informant showed Driver a phony picture of the group’s intended target, appearing to be dead, Driver and the informant exchanged a kind of secret password: “KLASP,” for “Klannish Loyalty, a Sacred Principal.”

The investigation began in November 2014 when Driver, Moran and Newcomb sought the help of the unidentified federal informant, referred to in court papers as CHS, which stands for confidential human source. The informant was recruited to help the three alleged Klan members commit the killing, records show.

Newcomb, Moran and the informant drove to Palatka, near Gainesville, a sworn statement says, to “conduct surveillance” of their target’s home. They also discussed how they would kill the man, alternating between shooting him with a 9mm gun or injecting him with insulin. “We could grab the package up and take him to the river, which is not far from him,” Newcomb is quoted as saying, and “put his ass face-down and uh, give him a couple of shots.”

Moran later added that the group could “do a complete disposal,” and “chop up the body.”

Eventually, court records say, the three men agreed to allow the federal informant to arrange the murder, and the federal “source” later showed the three men staged pictures of the man’s corpse.

“Are you happy with that, brother?” the informant asked Driver, a transcript says.

“Yes, sir, very much so,” Driver reportedly replied.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told reporters during a conference call late Thursday that the case will be tried in Columbia County by Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox.

Neither Bondi nor Cox would provide any details about the investigation, except to say that they staged the murder to verify the intent of the three men.

“We wanted to see their reaction because, a lot of times in these cases, the defendants will claim they weren’t serious,’’ Cox said. “So, when these guys were shown the photos, they were pleased. They thanked the guys” they believed had committed the killing, Cox added.

The arrests come after months of turmoil in the state’s prison system, including allegations of suspicious inmate deaths, a doubling of use-of-force incidents in the past five years, and claims by whistle-blowers that investigations into corruption and inmate abuse within the Department of Corrections have been ignored or torpedoed.

In an effort to right the troubled agency, the Florida Senate this week passed a bill aimed at giving sweeping new investigatory powers to an independent oversight commission that could subpoena agency administrators suspected of wrongdoing.

On Thursday, the corrections department released an official statement: “We are moving swiftly to terminate the employees arrested today and working closely with the Office of the Attorney General to assist in their prosecution. Our Department has zero tolerance for racism or prejudice of any kind. The actions of these individuals are unacceptable and do not, in any way, represent the thousands of good, hardworking and honorable correctional officers employed at the Department of Corrections.”

Driver, hired as a corrections officer on July 23, 2010, received a written reprimand in April 2012 for willful violation of rules, and another two months later for absence without authorized leave.

Moran, whose employment history goes back to 1996, was promoted to sergeant in April 2004. He received written reprimands in October 1999 and February 2006 for conduct unbecoming a public employee, and a supervisory counseling memorandum in May 2010 for abuse of sick leave.

Newcomb, hired Oct, 12, 2012, as a trainee-status correctional officer, was dismissed the following Jan. 6 for failure to meet a correctional officer’s minimum training requirements.

The arrests Thursday resulted from an investigation by several law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Corrections’ Inspector General’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.