Mother of slain Atwater prison officer struggles with legal fight

MERCED — The U.S. Department of Justice has denied a Merced family's $100 million administrative claim against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and several of its employees over the 2008 death of correctional officer Jose Rivera.

An administrative claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. The claim gives the government a chance to address a complaint and make reparations.

The claim was denied because of missing documentation, according to a letter from Harlan W. Penn, regional counsel for the Department of Justice. The letter claims Mark Peacock, a Newport Beach-based attorney for Terry Rivera on behalf of her son, didn't submit documentation verifying his authority to represent the Rivera family or verifying Terry Rivera's authority to represent her son's estate.

Peacock was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but he said earlier this week that his firm is finishing work on a federal lawsuit he intends to file soon on behalf of the Riveras.

Terry Rivera said she had not known the reason for the denial. "He's a very good lawyer. I'm just thinking that they are just giving us the runaround," Rivera said.

Tears still creep up on Rivera as she talks about her son. "It's not about the money. It's just about justice and for them to see the tragedy that has happened to this family. We don't want it to happen to anyone else," she said.

Jose Rivera, 22, had worked at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater for 10 months when he was attacked and stabbed to death about a half-hour before the end of his shift while locking down inmates into their cells.

Past record of assaults

In the many months since the attack several disturbing details about the case have been unearthed, including that Jose Rivera and other correctional officers at the time did not have access to stab-resistant vests and could not carry nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray or batons.

Jose Rivera was alone, as was policy, with about 100 inmates. His suspected attackers, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan, were drunk at the time, according to investigators.

Both suspects had previous records of assaulting correctional officers. The men knew each other, and when Guerrero was transferred to the Atwater penitentiary the day before the attack, one official warned that the two should not be in the same unit.

According to an FBI investigation, that official was told by a co-worker to put Guerrero with Sablan instead of in a higher-security unit.

When Jose Rivera triggered his body alarm during the attack, several of the first responders did not have keys to get into the unit.

The attackers continued to stab him — a total of 28 times — as staff could not reach him.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza testified before a House subcommittee in 2009 that the warden at the time, Dennis Smith, ignored his attempts to discuss concerns and conditions at the prison before Jose Rivera was killed.

"My son would be here today if he would've had the right tools and if they had the staffing they need," Terry Rivera said tearfully.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Guerrero and Sablan for the killing. A routine evidentiary hearing in the criminal case is set for Monday at the U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Coming up on the second anniversary of her son's death, Terry Rivera has hundreds of T-shirts, lapel pins and commemorative coins that honor her son and his service as a correctional officer.

She's selling the items to raise money to create a scholarship fund in his honor. She says she wants to work with Le Grand school officials to create the scholarship, which would be given yearly to a high-performing senior to use for college.