Inmate charged in Iowa prison deaths had threatened before

IOWA CITY, Iowa — An inmate charged with beating two Iowa prison employees to death with a hammer had threatened to assault staff at another prison a year earlier using a different maintenance tool, according to records released Friday.

Michael Dutcher testified that he picked up a mop wringer and threatened to use it as a weapon to attack correctional officers “because I was going to hurt as many people as I could,” according to disciplinary records obtained by The Associated Press through the open records law.

Dutcher’s threat came during an outburst at the state prison in Oakdale in February 2020, in which a judge said he engaged in “very dangerous actions” that included charging into several officers on a stairway.

Dutcher and inmate Thomas Woodard are charged with murder in the March 23 slayings of Anamosa State Penitentiary nurse Lorena Schulte and correctional officer Robert McFarland, during a failed escape attempt. Both inmates were serving time for armed robbery convictions.

The Iowa Department of Corrections has started multiple investigations into potential security lapses that preceded the deaths, which are believed to be the first involving prison staff killed by inmates since the 1970s. The department has also suspended work programs and inmate labor that involve tools, is reassessing procedures related to tool access, and is reviewing how inmates are classified for security purposes and privileges.

The revelation that Dutcher previously threatened staff with a maintenance tool added to growing alarm over how he and Woodard could have accessed hammers and a grinder through a prison maintenance shop that they used in the killings and escape attempt.

“This guy was a bad dude and the Department of Corrections knew he was a bad dude. That is why we believe the department’s classification system — how they classify inmates and put them in work programs — is totally screwed up,” said Danny Homan, president of the union that represents prison workers, who has also pointed to shortages of funding and staff as a problem. “Most people believe it is dangerous and is one of the leading causes for all the violence inside the prisons.”

Investigators say the inmates got into the prison infirmary by claiming they were performing maintenance work, then accessed a break room where they used the grinder to try to saw off the bars on a window.

Investigators say the pair used hammers to beat Schulte, 50, and McFarland, 46, to death and to seriously injure an inmate who tried to stop the attack. They also say the two briefly held another female employee as a hostage.

Dutcher had a long history of disruptive behavior and threats and violence toward prison staff that resulted in discipline, while Woodard had only one blemish on his record: a 2018 assault of another inmate, according to records released Friday.

The most serious incident happened 14 months ago at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale near Coralville.

Dutcher was furious on Feb. 10, 2020, and threatening to cause problems if a female treatment services director did not come speak with him. Dutcher was clenching his fists and walking in and out of his cell, when he ignored orders from guards to stop so he could be handcuffed.

Dutcher reached the bottom of the steps where a mop bucket was sitting, picked it up, removed the wringer and turned toward a male officer “as if he was going to use it as a weapon,” the document says. He was ordered to drop the wringer and ultimately did, but ran upstairs, got in a fighting stance and removed his shirt.

As officers pursued him up the stairs, he charged down toward them and got past, and was ultimately cuffed on the ground at the bottom of the stairs. Officers deployed pepper spray several times. During a disciplinary hearing, Dutcher acknowledged his actions but denied assaulting anyone.

“I picked up the mop wringer because I was going to hurt as many people as I could, but I reconsidered,” he said. “Throughout the ordeal I could have but didn’t.”

An administrative law judge found Dutcher guilty of assault and attempted assault. She said video showed his “very dangerous actions,” and noted that Dutcher and an officer both went into a railing to catch themselves. He was ordered to serve 30 days of disciplinary detention and she added 90 days of time to his sentence.

By the next month, he had been returned to the Anamosa prison and was disciplined for refusing to cooperate with a search of his cell. That was the last discipline he received before the alleged escape attempt.