Inmates at Lieber state prison marked James Belli as prey as soon as he landed in a maximum- security cell block meant for murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. Slight, slim and pale, the Summerville teen was fresh meat in a den of predators.

What happened to him at Lieber reveals a dark and dangerous world behind the brick walls and barbed wire at one of South Carolina's toughest prisons.

It unveils a place where the most violent prisoners ruled the roost, guards suspected one another of corruption and corrections officials turned a blind eye to cancers in their midst, court documents show.

Belli's family knew none of this when they turned the wayward teen in to police in late 2005 to face burglary and larceny charges, hoping it would straighten him out. Instead, he became a target for extortion at Lieber, and was roughed up and shaken down by other inmates.

Belli, 19, had served just a few months of his eight-year sentence when prisoners attacked him on Aug. 23, 2006. One man plunged a homemade shank into Belli's neck — again and again. Belli died the next day.

His family's quest for answers, along with a civil lawsuit, has yielded a bounty of documents and testimony that raise fresh questions about prison officials' handling of events leading up to Belli's death, and their failure to protect him from harm.

Court documents also paint a picture of a violent and corrupt prison wing where gang members extorted fellow inmates and sold drugs, allegedly with help from two guards.

Corrections officials deny the allegations, though the state chose to settle a lawsuit brought by Belli's mother for $450,000 this year rather that go to trial.

Now, a federal grand jury is said to be investigating the goings-on at Lieber at the time of Belli's death. Federal prosecutors would not confirm or deny the probe. State corrections officials declined comment on Belli's case, citing the prospect of a grand jury probe.

Belli's mother, Diane DiLorenzo, said she will not rest until all the responsible parties are held accountable and prison reform is enacted to prevent future tragedies.

'I still feel that we, as parents, did the right thing,' she said of the family's decision to surrender her son to authorities. 'But I feel the system really failed him.'

A wake-up call

James Belli had a big heart and an easy smile. He also had a drug habit.

Belli had struggled with emotional issues since he was a kid. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. By the time he reached his teens he had begun to self-medicate with marijuana and cocaine. He also broke into homes and stole to feed his addiction.

His family turned him over to authorities when they learned of warrants for his arrest, DiLorenzo said. But during an evaluation at Summerville Medical Center, Belli managed to slip away when he was left unattended.

That led to an escape charge when police caught up to him two days later, she said.

Prosecutors later dropped the escape count, but the dismissal did not show up on Belli's record. So when he entered the prison system, workers mistakenly classified Belli as an escapee and placed him in the high-security Ashley dorm at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, David Savage, a family attorney, said.

Belli tried to tell prison workers that he didn't belong in the unit, but his pleas went nowhere, Savage said.

Former corrections officers Gibb Mathis and Paul Hightower would later tell one of Savage's investigators that Belli had no business being among the hardened criminals and staggering violence in the Ashley dorm.

In a sworn statement, Mathis said he personally delivered at least seven transfers requests from Belli to his supervisors, but Lieber's administration did nothing.

Belli pursed his lips and betrayed no emotion when they took his photo for his prison ID. His eyes stare out, dead and empty — prison tough. A tattoo ran down his right forearm that read 'Untouchable.'

He was anything but.

A dangerous place

The dorm to which Belli was assigned was reserved for the most violent and troublesome offenders. And it was partially overseen by two guards whose own activities had raised suspicion among inmates and corrections officers alike, records show.

Two inmates wrote to prison officials as early as 2005 claiming that the two guards were linked to misconduct in the dorm, including drug sales. One former guard told Savage's investigators he suspected that the pair was involved in extortion.

Then-Warden Stan Burtt would later express concerns of his own about one of the officers being too close to inmates, having credibility issues and lacking the trust of his co-workers. In a January 2007 memo to a corrections major, Burtt said one possibility to be explored was 'is he dirty.'

The other officer in question previously had been written up for, among other things, leaving a 12-inch knife in a kitchen area where it was found by an inmate, and passing along a greeting from a Death Row inmate to a woman on the outside.

The woman reported the incident to prison officials, saying she took the message as a veiled threat.

In a 2002

letter to Burtt, the officer acknowledged concerns about his bad reputation, but insisted he had never brought drugs into the facility. He blamed internal affairs for continuously scrutinizing him and for disparaging his reputation without evidence.

Pay or else

For Belli, problems in the unit started soon after he arrived in April 2006. Inmates dubbed him 'Lil' J' and described him as small and timid.

He began asking his mother and grandmother to place cash in the canteen accounts of other inmates, making up excuses for why he owed them money. He eventually confided that other inmates were threatening to harm him if he didn't make the payments, DiLorenzo said.

Prison records and wire transfer statements from that time show DiLorenzo depositing hundreds of dollars in the accounts of inmates and their associates on the outside. She said she did so to protect her son's safety, but she eventually started to run out of cash.

Belli had other problems, as well, according to cell mate Gregory Mouzon. Mouzon would later tell authorities that he and Belli witnessed the two dorm guards under suspicion delivering a package of contraband to another inmate.

When the officers saw Belli watching, they warned him to keep quiet about what he had seen, reminding him that 'snitches get stitches,' Mouzon said in a written statement.

Plea for help

On April 24, 2006, Belli and Mouzon passed a note to a guard while the two other guards were not around. They claimed their lives had been threatened, and told officers an inmate and suspected gang member named Tony Rush was extorting them for cash.

Rush, a suspected Bloods gang member serving eight years on an attempted robbery charge, had been accused of a similar offense a month earlier. An inmate claimed that Rush

had threatened him with a knife and demanded that he fork over $50.

Rush previously had been caught with a homemade knife in February of that year, prison records show.

Prison officials placed Belli and Mouzon in protective custody and noted that they should be kept separated from Rush, who was sequestered as well pending an investigation into the allegations.

Whether an investigation was conducted is unclear from prison records. Savage said he and co-counsel Matthew Yelverton requested records from the probe, but were told by corrections officials that none could be found.

DiLorenzo said she also called Burtt to alert him to the extortion allegations, but he didn't return her calls. She finally reached a major on the staff and explained the situation. He pledged to investigate, she said, assuring her that her son's safety was of chief concern.

Return to danger

Belli's grandfather, a leading influence in his life, died while Belli was in protective custody. Before his death, he recorded a video message saying goodbye to his grandson and urging him to stay on the right path.

One of the two guards Belli had earlier seen with the contraband refused to let him see the video, Mouzon testified. Belli got angry and told the officer he planned to report the exchange of contraband he had witnessed, he said.

A short time later, Mouzon was transferred to another prison. Belli, however, was taken out of protective custody and placed back in the Ashley dorm where he had been having problems, records show.

What's more, Rush, the inmate he had accused of extortion, was later placed in the cell beside him.

About that same time, another inmate, Jarvis Lucas, filed a complaint with authorities alleging that Rush and his cronies were continuing to extort and threaten people in the unit. Prison workers said they couldn't verify the complaint, documents show.

Several days later, convicted burglar Billy Robinson wrote to Burtt asking when prison officials planned to investigate illegal activities in the Ashley dorm. Robinson had written several requests to corrections officials alleging drug dealing and extortion schemes involving staff and inmates.

In his Aug. 15 letter, he also questioned why Belli hadn't been moved from Ashley when he had expressed fears for his safety.

'Warden Burtt, how much must go wrong before you do something about Ashley dorm?,' Robinson wrote.

A violent end

On the morning of Aug. 23, Belli came running into a break room in the facility clutching his throat with blood pouring through his fingers. As corrections officers placed him on the floor and tried to stop the bleeding, they asked Belli who had cut him.

'Room 39,' was all he could say.

Corrections officers followed a long and expansive trail of blood to cell 39, where Tony Rush was housed with a convicted murderer named Jaquan

Ferrell. Officers found Rush mopping blood from the floor outside the room, according to a State Law Enforcement Division investigation.

'Nothing happened in room 39,' Rush told the officers, tossing the mop over a railing. 'Nothing.'

Other inmates told SLED agents about Rush's alleged extortion of Belli and how Rush had 'jumped' the Summerville teen the night before. Witnesses placed Rush and inmate Sylvester Black in the area when Belli was attacked, and multiple

inmates fingered Ferrell as the man who stabbed Belli, according to SLED documents.

Ferrell and Black refused to speak to SLED agents. Rush told agents he had 'busted' Belli in the face a couple of times during an encounter the night before, but he denied any involvement in the stabbing.

Prison officials found evidence to determine that Rush and Black held Belli while Ferrell stabbed him, and authorities suspended several of the trio's privileges for their role in the homicide, records show.

Prosecutors faced a much tougher task of establishing guilt in a court of law, having to rely largely on inmate witnesses with criminal records, credibility concerns and, at-times, conflicting statements.

In the end, they were able to convict Ferrell of murder, with the aid of inmate testimony and drops of blood on Ferrell's uniform and cell bedsheets. Already serving 30 years for fatally shooting a man during a 2003 robbery in Colleton County, Ferrell received life without parole for Belli's murder.

Epilogue

DiLorenzo and her family gathered last week, as they do each year, to mark her son's July 22 birthday with the release of balloons filled with messages to him. He would have been 24 this year.

She tries to focus on the good things — the memories of her son and the four people awaiting transplants who got second chances because of his donated organs. She still keeps in touch with those folks, and it's comforting for her to know a part of James lives on.

DiLorenzo has been meeting with state lawmakers and officials as well, pushing for prison reform. Among other things, she champions changes to the prison classification system for inmates and technology that would jam illicit cell phone use by prisoners.

DiLorenzo hopes to prevent more violence at places like Lieber.

Warden Burtt is retired. Rush, Black and Ferrell were moved to other prisons. And several corrections officers have left, including the two men alleged to have been involved with drug running and extortion in Ashley.

One is said to have left due to an injury; the other was fired for lying about an unexcused absence.

The prospect of grand jury indictments still loom, though no one seems quite sure where that stands. Some prison officials reportedly testified before the panel this year, but there has been little word about new developments.

Marshall Waldron, a Beaufort attorney who represents one of the unit's former guards, isn't worried. He insists that the allegations of misconduct are lies from inmates trying to gain leverage over their captors.

'There is no evidence. There is no proof,' he said. 'It is all innuendo and inference. It's all fabricated as far as I'm concerned.'

DiLorenzo doesn't buy it. She said the settlement money she received meant little compared with the revelations that came out in the lawsuit, dishing out ample blame for her son's death.

'I want these people to know that I know what they did,' she said. 'They know this didn't have to happen. And they know they are responsible.'

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.