Five Inmates in Wyoming Prisons Die Within Weeks

Officials cite natural causes but questions remain about deaths

Five inmates died in Wyoming prisons between Oct. 4 and Nov. 5. From left to right: Jerry Tapp on Oct. 4, Desmond Triplett on Oct. 20, Harry Alford on Oct. 28, Frank Apodaca on Nov. 3 and Chris Montoya on Nov. 5. Officials say the five inmates died of natural causes, and none of the deaths was related. (Photos courtesy of Wyoming Department of Corrections)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Five inmates in Wyoming state prisons died in a span of weeks between October and November, equaling the number of prisoner deaths recorded in all of 2020, and questions remain about their deaths.

State and county officials say each of the five recent deaths were from natural causes, but when the Wyoming Truth reached out to lawyers, a funeral home and people possibly connected to the inmates for comments and more details, the causes of deaths for the inmates remained unknown or uncertain. In one case, the death of one of the inmates was related to COVID-19, according to a family member.

Chris Jasper Montoya is the latest and youngest inmate to die within the Wyoming Department of Corrections. The Rawlins native died Nov. 5 at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, according to the corrections department. The 53-year-old was sentenced in Carbon County in March 2020 to a two- to three-year sentence for unlawful possession of a controlled substance, his third offense.

Although the corrections department would not disclose a cause of death, Shirine Nealy, Montoya’s older sister, told the Wyoming Truth that nurses at the hospital told her that her brother had COVID-related pneumonia. By the time she learned of his ailment, Nealy said Montoya was already critically ill and placed on a ventilator. Nealy didn’t know of any underlying medical conditions her brother had, and she did not know if he was vaccinated against COVID-19.

“It shouldn’t have happened like that,” Nealy said. “My brother shouldn’t have died of that crap.” She questions whether his medical needs were met while in prison or if he received medical attention quickly enough.

Shirine Nealy (at right) says nurses at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper told her that her younger brother Chris Montoya (at left) had COVID-related pneumonia. Nealy says she did not learn of her brother’s condition until he had already been placed on a ventilator. He died Nov. 5. (Photo courtesy of Shirine Nealy)

Paul Martin, deputy administrator of the transparency division at the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said the department offers all inmates unrestricted access to comprehensive medical care daily at each state prison. He added the Wyoming Department of Corrections also has complied with all the federal and state health protocols for managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccinations and booster shots are freely available to offenders as well, he said, although they are not required.

The Wyoming Department of Corrections did not reveal the specific causes of deaths for Montoya or the other four inmates who recently died. Martin said he could not share these details because of medical reasons and privacy concerns.

The other inmates include:

• Frank Lee Apodaca, 66, who died Nov. 3 at the Community Hospital in Torrington. The Fort Collins, Colorado, native was sentenced in 2017 to nine to 12 years in prison in July 2017 for third-degree sexual assault and intrusion on a minor younger than 16 in Laramie County.

• Harry Alford, 65, who died Oct. 28 at the Northern Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections. The Richmond, California, native had been convicted of first-degree murder in North Dakota, but moved to a Wyoming state prison on Aug. 1, 2005, as part of an interstate compact transfer.

• Desmond Otto Triplett, 71, who died Oct. 20 at the Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The Casper native was convicted of second-degree sexual abuse of a minor between 13-15 years old in Natrona County. He was sentenced to eight to 10 years in November 2016.

• Jerry Thomas Tapp, 79, who died Oct. 4 at the Community Hospital in Torrington. Tapp was convicted of aggravated assault and battery/attempt to injure with a weapon in Sheridan County. The Curlew, Iowa, native was serving a sentence of six to 10 years, handed down to him in June of this year.

The two county coroners who performed the autopsies of the inmates also declined to share causes of deaths for the inmates. However, Goshen County coroner Darin Yates, who conducted autopsies for Alford, Apodaca, Tapp and Triplett, said all have been ruled natural deaths.

The inmates, except Montoya, were housed at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution. Montoya was housed at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp and Boot Camp.

Martin, the spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, acknowledged that while Wyoming state prisons have experienced several inmate deaths in just a few weeks’ time, this is something that sometimes happens. Yet, he noted the number of deaths among inmates this year is not an outlier.

So far this year, nine inmates at state correctional facilities have died, including five from COVID-19, said Martin. The Wyoming Department of Corrections reported five total inmate deaths in 2020, 10 inmate deaths in 2019, six inmate deaths in 2018, seven inmate deaths in 2017, 12 inmate deaths in 2016 and seven inmate deaths in 2015, according to Martin.

“The number of offender deaths varies year to year,” Martin said. “I will say as our offender population is aging, an increase in deaths over time would not be surprising.”

He added the Wyoming Department of Corrections has conducted 62,699 COVID-19 tests on staff and inmates with a total of 1,819 positive results as of Nov. 30. The five state-owned correctional facilities can hold 2,451 inmates, Martin said, and the corrections department has 1,063 authorized positions.

The four other inmates who died earlier this year were: Bruce Leslie on May 29; Clarence Hinckley on March 27; Benden Gray on Feb. 15; and Stephen Green on Feb. 8.

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