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Friends, co-workers reminisce about slain correctional officer

November 30, 1999|By PEPPER BALLARD

Had he not been sick, retired Roxbury Correctional Institution Officer Russ Hess would have spent the morning of Jan. 26, 2006, guarding an inmate at Washington County Hospital.

Instead, RCI Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten ? Hess' close friend ? took the post, and, midway through his shift, a bullet to his head.

In the year since Wroten's death, Hess has retired from the state prison system, moved south and sought counseling for the "tremendous survivor's guilt" he feels over that morning.

"It's a lot of 'What if I would have done this and what if I would have done that,' a lot of 'What if I wouldn't have been off sick and what if I would have died?'" Hess said through tears Friday in a phone interview.

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Hess, 53, said he cried for several days straight after Wroten's death. Several weeks later, he had a nervous breakdown, lashed out at his supervisors and realized the guilt was too much for him to bring to work.

Wroten and Hess had spent hours working together overnight at the prison, talking at length about "family, spiritual things and health" while they emptied the trash cans, cleaned the bathrooms and dusted fixtures in the prison's administration building.

"Jeff had such an engaging smile, but yet an intimidating scowl. He was a big guy. He had huge fists, huge hands. His hands were like ham hocks," Hess said. "When Jeff said, 'It's good to see you,' you felt the warmth in his voice. He was a very, very sincere individual. He didn't just walk into a room, he lumbered into a room and exuded confidence, exuded a presence."

The two friends greeted each other fist to fist, Hess said. Wroten, a 44-year-old father of five, gushed over his children. He got excited talking about their plans.

Like Hess, RCI Officer Ron Violet said he misses camaraderie and conversations with Wroten. The two celebrated the same birthday ? Nov. 10 ? and hoped to toast many more together.

The pain Violet felt over Wroten's loss came back to him in a phone conversation Thursday.

In the past two years, five of Violet's close friends at the prison have died, the majority from heart attacks, which he said is a typical outcome associated with the job's stresses.

Violet, 61, coped with Wroten's death and the deaths of his other close friends alone, as he always has, he said. Hess, however, needed help. Violet jotted down the words to a poem he penned more than 20 years ago and handed it to his friend.

The poem, called "The Gift," is about relieving burden by passing it on, he said.

Hess said the poem did help him. After he retired and moved to South Carolina, he took a job driving a security truck around a Wal-Mart parking lot. He then got up the nerve to work at a jail. That job has brought back more memories, though, and Hess said he plans to go back into counseling.

For other friends, coping means dropping by a memorial built in Wroten's honor inside the prison's gates. Some stop at a bulletin board inside the prison dedicated to Wroten to reflect on his memory, RCI Warden Rod Sowers said.

Workers on all three shifts will observe a moment of silence today for Wroten.

An access road and the complex training facility will be renamed in his honor next month, Sowers said.

Wroten's alleged killer, inmate Brandon Morris, is to go to trial on death penalty-eligible charges in Howard County in June.

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