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Inmate suspects have history of violence

The two U.S. Penitentiary Atwater inmates suspected in the week-old killing of a correctional officer both came to the prison with long histories of violence and one has been accused of killing a correctional officer before.

The suspects, both of whom are from Guam, were longtime friends, according to a corrections official there. One of them arrived at USP Atwater the day before officer Jose Rivera was stabbed to death June 20.

Jose Palacios, director of the Guam Department of Corrections, identified the inmates as James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan. A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Lauren Horwood, confirmed the suspects' names. Before Friday officials had refused to identify them.

Both men were first sentenced to prison in Guam, and both were transferred off the small Pacific island because of their violent behavior at a prison there, Palacios said.

One of them, Guerrero, was implicated in the death of a correctional officer in Guam in 1987, though he was not convicted.

He was transferred to USP Atwater from another federal prison the day before Rivera was killed, said Mike Truman, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Guerrero was convicted in 1998 of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, Truman said. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Sablan, 40, had been at USP Atwater since July 2005. He was convicted of murder and attempted murder in Guam in 1990. He also is serving a life sentence.

Palacios said both men have long histories of violent behavior inside prison. "We only ship out inmates who are incredibly dangerous," he said. "Basically we ship them out when the indication is clear that keeping them here will result in the death of a staff or an inmate."

Guerrero was implicated along with three other inmates in the 1987 stabbing death of Guam Department of Corrections Officer Douglas Mashburn, though he was cleared of the charge. Two others were convicted.

Palacios suggested that Guerrero and Sablan may have decided to kill Rivera in the hopes they'd be transferred together from Atwater to the Florence Federal Correctional Complex in Colorado. Florence, which houses convicted terrorists Zacarias Moussaoui and Ted Kaczynski, is the federal prison system's most secure facility. It is generally considered the last stop for federal inmates who misbehave.

At least two of Sablan's relatives are housed there, his brother Rudy Sablan and his cousin William Sablan.

"Inmates will sometimes keep committing crimes until they end up in the same place," Palacios said. "We can't prove their intentions, but it seems kind of obvious. It's part of prison culture and these men know they will die in prison."

For now, Guerrero and Sablan have been transferred to the Bureau of Prison's Dublin site in Alameda County, according to the bureau's Web site.

Both were first transferred from Guam, a U.S. territory, sometime in the 1990s, Palacios said. "When we shipped them out, we included an advisory in their files that they are very dangerous -- basically that they are not capable of rehabilitation," he said.

Horwood, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said it's uncertain when formal charges against Guerrero and Sablan might be announced.

Rivera, 22, had worked at USP Atwater less than a year. He was stabbed through the heart with a prison-made shank.

The third of five children, he graduated from Le Grand High School in 2003 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after. He served four years, including two tours in Iraq.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or