A chill, damp mist clung to the grounds of Lieber state prison as Corrections Officer Nathan Sasser led two death-row inmates down a cement staircase to an outdoor basketball court for their recreation hour.
MIKAL MAHDI, 26
Status: Death row
Crime: Pleaded guilty in 2006 to fatally shooting an off-duty Orangeburg police officer after killing a gas station worker in North Carolina.
QUINCY ALLEN, 33
Status: Death row
Crime: Sent to death row in 2005 after he admitted to killing four people in the Carolinas in a delusional plan to become a Mafia hit man.
Sasser had his back turned to the pair, opening a lock to the court, when the first blow landed on his neck. It felt like a forearm slammed into the base of his skull.
Sasser didn’t realize he had been stabbed until he wheeled around and saw one of the inmates lunge at him again with a crude, but effective, homemade knife.
In a matter of seconds, both men were on him, slashing, stabbing, cutting as Sasser fell to the ground, his feet skittering out from under him on pavement slick with his blood. By the time the attack ended, he had been stabbed 14 times on his face, scalp, neck, chest and arms.
Nearly four years have passed since that bloody morning in December 2009, and Sasser’s physical wounds have mostly healed, the jagged tears to his flesh transformed by time into knotted scars and faded squiggles along his skin. But the wounds inside his head remain raw and tough to remedy.
Post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety steal his sleep and have kept him from working. He is quick to startle, and he has swung on family members and friends who made the mistake of trying to rouse him from feverish dreams. Feeling exposed and worried about being caught defenseless, he carries a half-dozen lock-blade knives on him at all times.
The 39-year-old Summerville man credits his Christian faith with keeping him strong, but he is bitter about the way he’s been treated by the state Department of Corrections and the criminal justice system.
The corrections agency terminated him a year after the stabbing because he was unable to return to duty from his disability. Then the state dropped felony assault charges against the two inmates accused of stabbing him.
Sasser said prosecutors saw little to be gained by taking the pair to trial, since they already are facing death sentences for their previous crimes.
“They were like ‘What’s the point? There’s nothing we can do to them,’” he said. “But what about the principle? It says to those guys you can beat the hell out of an officer and do whatever you want, and nothing is going to happen to you.”
Corrections officials said they have done all they can do to help Sasser, and they needed to fill his job to maintain staffing at the maximum-security prison in Ridgeville. He has been offered the possibility of other jobs at Lieber or another prison when his doctor clears him to return to work, but that hasn’t happened, Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said.
His termination was not punitive, but rather a necessary step after he had exceeded the 180-day extended disability leave provided for under state law, Newsom said.
“All I can say is we sympathize with Mr. Sasser,” he said. “We hope once he has been cleared by his physician to come back to work, if he has an interest in returning, he would certainly be welcome to re-apply.”
The chief prosecutor for the area, 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, said he understands Sasser’s frustration and hasn’t given up on prosecuting the two inmates, despite the dismissal of the earlier charges. Part of the problem, he said, is that one of the inmates is considered so dangerous that a court order is needed just to remove him from a “super-max” facility in Columbia to attend trial.
Sasser said he feels discarded and forgotten after giving his all to a job he had hoped would become a stable career — a job he insists he was never properly trained to do. Now, he’s struggling to support his wife and four children.
“He’s been pushed to the side, like he’s worthless,” said Sasser’s wife, Kim. “They just don’t care.”
A new career
A burly, barrel-chested man with a bald pate and a salt-and-pepper goatee as thick as a wire brush, Sasser worked as a long-haul trucker for 15 years, carting freight everywhere from Texas to Connecticut and many points in between. But tired of being away from his family, he looked for work closer to home, and landed a job at Lieber Correctional Facility in June 2009.
He had been on the job less than six months when he applied for an opening on death row, hoping the move would lead to a promotion and better pay. He said he became one of just five officers on his shift charged with keeping watch over some 52 men awaiting execution. His first day on “The Rock,” as they called it, an inmate told Sasser he would shoot him if he could get his hands on a gun.
Officers on death row were supposed to have a working knowledge of some 15 binders full of policies, procedures and regulations, Sasser said. Instead, he was quickly put to work on the floor and given rudimentary instructions on performing duties that he later learned contradicted official policies, he said.
For one, the rule book called for all death-row inmates to be strip-searched and shackled for escort before leaving or returning to their cells, Sasser said. In practice, however, he was told to simply walk them to their destination for recreation, with a pat-down at most, he said.
That practice would soon come back to haunt Sasser.
On the morning of Dec. 2, 2009, death row was short-staffed and an officer who had never worked there or been trained in its procedures was assigned to search inmates after they were released from their cells for recreation. He patted down their clothes, but did not do more extensive searches, according to an internal report on the incident.
In the group that was released was Mikal Mahdi, a 26-year-old inmate who had been sentenced to death in 2006 after pleading guilty to fatally shooting an off-duty Orangeburg police officer nine times and setting his body on fire while on the run from a killing a gas station worker in North Carolina.
Mahdi was placed in a recreation cage with Quincy Allen, 30, who was sent to death row in 2005 after he admitted to killing four people in the Carolinas in a delusional plan to become a Mafia hit man.
A short time later, Allen and Mahdi stopped Sasser as he walked by and asked to go to the basketball court. They then jumped him when his back was turned, setting upon him with shanks fashioned from metal they had stripped from air ducts, Sasser said. Each knife had a blade 5 to 6 inches long.
“Come on guys. I have a family,” Sasser pleaded as blows rained down on him.
They didn’t stop.
Sasser said he grabbed Allen’s knife, bending the blade, and tried to use Allen’s body to block Mahdi’s line of attack. But Sasser slipped on his blood and fell to the ground, quickly covering his head and neck with his hands for protection. His fellow officers couldn’t reach him to help because Sasser was outside alone, the only one with keys to the exterior doors and gates.
The two inmates then jumped on the fence, trying to make a run for it, Sasser and witnesses said. That gave him enough time to scramble to the door, bleeding from his wounds. He got inside, where a fellow officer pulled him to safety inside a sally port.
Unable to escape, Mahdi and Allen ducked back inside and started tearing up the common area, destroying two televisions and a microwave, authorities said. They used the plastic backs of the TV sets as makeshift body armor to protect themselves from the prison tactical team racing their way, an internal report stated.
After tear gas failed to roust the duo, officers used non-lethal rounds to subdue the pair, the report said. Sasser said he was told they were shot with rubber bullets.
Allen and Mahdi were transferred to the Kirkland “super-max” facility in Columbia and stripped of their privileges — outside recreation, visitation, phone use and canteen items, Newsom said.
The pair declined to speak with investigators, but another inmate told prison officials the pair had been plotting an attack on a white officer for weeks because prisoners were upset about a new rule requiring that a door to the recreation area remain closed, according to the internal report.
The report does not mention that Allen and Mahdi had any specific beef with Sasser in particular, and he said he’d had no prior problems with the men.
‘Huge security risk’
State investigators charged the pair with assault and battery with intent to kill, but prosecutors in May decided against taking the case to trial, noting in a letter to Sasser that they “have reserved the right to restore the cases to be prosecuted in the future in the event that is warranted.”
Pascoe, who prosecuted Allen’s and Mahdi’s murder cases, said he hasn’t closed the door on the Sasser case and sees value in holding the inmates accountable. But both men, and Mahdi in particular, are considered so dangerous that it’s difficult and risky to bring them to court, he said.
Mahdi is deviously crafty, and during his murder trial he was caught with a handcuff key he had fashioned from phone-jack wire, Pascoe said.
“This guy is a huge security risk,” he said.
Sasser spent two days in Medical University Hospital after the stabbing, then went home on medical leave. Later that year the state sent him and his wife to a corrections conference in Buffalo, N.Y., where he received an engraved clock in recognition of his bravery. It still sits by his bedside, though he can’t remember when it last kept time.
The Corrections Department cut him loose in November 2010, saying it could no longer hold his job open for him. Agency officials also have refused his requests for information about the investigation into the incident, citing an ongoing probe by the State Law Enforcement Division, Sasser said.
“Basically for the past three and a half years, it’s been one slap in the face after another, getting kicked while you are down and getting nothing on the back end,” he said. “It’s like they are saying it’s my fault that it happened.”
Newsom said that’s not the case; the agency was just following state law and its rules. “It’s just an unfortunate situation all the way around,” he said.
Sasser said he wants to go back to the working world, but his psychiatrist hasn’t cleared him to do so because of lingering anxiety and PTSD issues. So he’s getting by on $600 in monthly retirement funds and workman’s compensation checks that are soon due to run dry.
He and his wife said they have leaned on their faith to get them through this time.
“We know this all happened for a reason, but what that is, I don’t know,” his wife said. “But God will bring us through it all. That’s all I can say.”
His pastor at Crossroads Community Church in Summerville, Peppy DuTart, was at Sasser’s bedside after the stabbing, and has seen the psychological effects of the attack.
“You’ll see him at church sometimes, and he doesn’t want anybody to be behind him,” DuTart said. “He will stand against the back wall, even during services.”
DuTart has seen other changes as well. Sasser has become more active in church, more solid in his faith. He volunteers running the church sound board, working with and mentoring teens, and leading a youth group that mows lawns and performs other chores for the elderly and needy.
“I think all of (Sasser’s family) have found strength in the Lord,” he said. “And Nate has been used in mighty ways, ways that he might not have otherwise.”
His ordeal already has prompted changes at the Corrections Department, Newsom said. Death-row inmates were denied outside recreation for two years until new reinforced cages could be built to improve security, holding only one inmate per cage.
The agency also has tightened up its practices for moving these inmates to and from the recreation area, requiring restraints and body searches each time they leave their cells, he said.
The shanks used by two death row inmates during an attack on Nathan Sasser, a former officer at Lieber Correctional Institution. Photo taken Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at his home in Summerville. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)×
Nathan Sasser, a former officer at Lieber Correctional Institution, has collected photos and piles of paper work after he was attacked by two death row inmates and stabbed 14 times. Photo taken Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at his home in Summerville. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)×
Nathan Sasser, a former officer at Lieber Correctional Institution, demonstrates how two death row inmates attacked him with shanks and stabbed him 14 times.×