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Special treatment for killer of guard: 30 years in solitary

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOUTZDALE, Pa. -- After almost 30 years in solitary confinement, convicted killer Daniel Delker can still keep tabs on the outside world.

Daniel Delker

He has cable television and a radio in his cell for news. He reads Tom Clancy and Elmore Leonard novels for popular culture. And the prison grapevine provides him with updates on other notorious inmates housed throughout Pennsylvania's vast corrections system.

Each time a murderer is released from solitary and returned to the yard, Delker makes a mental note in hopes of bolstering his lawsuit against the state.

"Do you know a prisoner in Pittsburgh named John Keen?" he asked a visitor last week. "Keen killed three other inmates in three different cases, but he's not in the hole anymore. I haven't been written up for a misconduct violation in seven years, but I can't get out."

So Delker, 55, is suing the state, which has held him in solitary confinement longer than any other inmate.

He contends that the Houtzdale staff keeps him in isolation not because he is a killer -- prison yards are full of those -- but because of the stature of his victim.

Delker and two other inmates were convicted of the 1973 murder of Walter Peterson, who was a captain at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. Because Peterson was a prison employee, Delker says, the state automatically denies each of his requests for release into the general population.

A federal judge this year rejected Delker's claim that his constitutional right to due process had been violated by prison administrators. But he appealed in April to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which could hear arguments by fall or early winter.

"The prison staff has sealed minds when it comes to Danny Delker," said Jere Krakoff, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represents him through the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a free service for convicts. "His situation is kind of like having a trial in front of a jury, only to have the jury make its decision before the testimony starts."

Doretta Chencharick, assistant to the Houtzdale prison superintendent, said all of Delker's requests for release from isolation had been duly considered and rejected. She said the reason was simple: "He is a very big security risk. He killed somebody."

John McCullough, formerly Houtzdale's superintendent and now deputy secretary for the prison system's western region, said perpetual solitary confinement seemed necessary for Delker.

"I'll be frank here. I doubt that I could ever release an inmate who killed a staff member," McCullough said.

Another factor in the prison administration's stance is that the state says Delker's crime was a premeditated act of racial hatred.

Peterson was black. The three inmates who attacked him were white. Witnesses said they shouted racial slurs as they beat Peterson with wooden chairs, slashed him with razor blades and broken fluorescent lighting tubes and urinated down his throat.

"There are a lot of Afro-Americans and Spanish kids in here," McCullough said of Houtzdale, a prison of 2,250 inmates in Clearfield County. "I don't want them or Danny Delker to get hurt."

Delker admits he had an explosive temper as a young man in the 1960s and '70s, but he says that no longer is true.

"I surely can get along with everybody," he said during a two-hour interview last week. "I got no problems with blacks or anybody else. I never did. What do they want from me? No matter how good I am, they don't want to let me out of the hole."

Living in lockdown

Delker is locked in his cell 23 hours a day. He gets out for an hour of exercise five times a week and for three weekly showers of up to five minutes each.

"I'm suing because I just can't live like this," he said.

Peterson's son, a Pennsylvania state trooper who is also named Walter, says he cannot mount any sympathy for Delker.

"If I got my father back, he could get out. He's only 55. I was only 8. I didn't have a lot of time with my dad."

Peterson said Delker should consider himself lucky to be alive. He murdered the senior Peterson when there was no death penalty in the United States.

Delker's cohorts in the crime, Stanley Hoss and George Butler, already were serving long sentences for murder.

Guards say Hoss did hundreds of pushups a day and rated as one of the most feared inmates in Western Pen. He had killed a Verona policeman and was suspected but never prosecuted in the disappearances of a Maryland woman and her 2-year-old daughter.

Butler was almost as notorious. He murdered two women in a diner.

Hoss hanged himself in prison in 1978. An aneurysm killed Butler in 2001.

So only Delker remains. He said he expects to die in prison unless he becomes so infirm that he has to be sent elsewhere for medical care.

For a man of 55, Delker is a remarkable physical specimen. When he hits the prison yard for his hour of exercise, he runs the whole time, his bald head barely breaking into a sweat.

"I used to get two hours and I ran all of that, too. They keep taking away what little I have," he said.

His prized possessions in solitary are his radio and cable television hookup, privileges awarded to him by the prison staff because he has been generally well-behaved during his 4 1/2 years in Houtzdale.

Delker said he had had no misconduct violations at Houtzdale, one of the half dozen prisons where he has spent the past 35 years. The Houtzdale staff, though, says he received a reprimand in November 2000 for "destroying and altering property." Prison spokeswoman Chencharick said she could not find specific records of the damage Delker did, but it apparently was not serious enough for him to lose his cable TV.

While Delker was in the Huntingdon prison during the 1990s, the staff took away his television for 60 days because he stayed in the shower too long.

He realizes that his TV privileges may rankle taxpayers, but he says he has little else except reading and prayer to occupy his time.

What family he has is older or disconnected from his life. Delker was married and the father of an infant boy when he arrived in prison in 1967. He and his wife subsequently divorced. His son, now 35, has occasionally visited him. Delker also has three small grandchildren.

If he could only get out of solitary, he said, he might feel more productive. He even talks about joining in prison training programs and getting therapy.

Crime as a way of life

Delker grew up in and around Allentown in Lehigh County. He can scarcely remember a time when he was not in trouble with the law. The same holds true for his family.

During one stretch of the 1960s, Delker, his three brothers and their father were all in jail or prison at the same time.

He said he could not explain the cycle of lawbreaking. His father drove a truck and the family, he said, never lacked for food, clothing or shelter.

Delker dropped out of high school as a sophomore, spent two years in juvenile hall for assault, then landed in prison at 19 for the armed robbery of a supermarket. He could have been paroled in as few as six years, but he found more trouble inside the walls of Pittsburgh's prison.

Delker admits getting into fights, notably with black inmates, and breaking up a sink and toilet in a fit of anger.

By Sept. 21, 1973, he said, racial tension in the prison was so thick "you could cut it with a butter knife." He said three black inmates jumped him that day, and the primary aggressor, Melvin Sermons, pulled a knife.

Delker said he took the knife away from Sermons, then killed him with it. A jury would later accept his account, finding that he had acted in self-defense.

While he was awaiting trial in Sermons' killing, Delker went into a special wing at Western Pen. Hoss, who also had stabbed a black inmate, was there, too. So was Butler.

Delker denies that he ever had any animosity toward blacks. "I used to lend the black guys my radio down in Pittsburgh," he said. "Why would I do that if I didn't like them?"

But Delker also volunteered that a black man killed one of his brothers outside a bar. It happened during the fall of 1973, just as he became friendlier with fellow inmates Hoss and Butler.

Prosecutors say that, after his brother's death, Delker conspired with Hoss and Butler to murder a black prison employee. Peterson became their target. At 42, Peterson had risen through the ranks to captain.

Delker says many inmates expected Peterson to become a warden and several, especially Hoss, were displeased by that prospect.

Peterson entered the isolation area the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1973, to tell Hoss he had a phone call. Delker went after him. He was armed with a razor blade, which, he said, a guard had given him.

In his latest version of the murder, Delker said he grabbed Peterson by the throat. "I was just going to rough him up a little," he said.

He pulled his razor blade, but Peterson took it away from him. During their struggle, Delker said, he noticed a crucifix around Peterson's neck.

Delker said the religious symbol caused an epiphany, so he let Peterson go. Then, he said, the fatal attack on Peterson was carried out by others. He still will not specifically name Hoss and Butler, saying he is no snitch.

Prison staff members say Delker's version of what happened is a lie.

Former guard Patrick Reilly, who was locked in an observation room and could not get out to help Peterson, witnessed the murder. He said in a recent interview that Hoss and Delker simultaneously attacked Peterson. Both had razor blades.

Delker says he's sorry

Delker confessed to Peterson's murder and was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1974. During that time, he tried to absolve his friend Hoss of blame. Calling himself the perpetrator, Delker testified that Hoss had tried to come to Peterson's defense.

"I just got up there and ran my mouth," Delker says now. "I felt responsible because if I hadn't confronted Peterson to begin with, none of this stuff would have happened."

Over the years, he said, he thought of apologizing to Peterson's widow, Asaline, but never had the chance. "Tell her I'm sorry," he said. "But I didn't kill her husband."

Delker said the unwritten code of prison is that no inmate who is convicted in a guard's death can ever get out of solitary. His goal is to change that with his lawsuit.

Krakoff, his attorney, said the case has merit, regardless of how unpopular Delker is with the public.

"An important part of the Constitution is that it protects those who are despised, as well as those who are revered," Krakoff said.

Delker can expect opposition from his victim's family, especially state Trooper Walter Peterson.

"He thinks they keep him in solitary because he killed a guard," Peterson said. "Tell him he killed a son, a father, a husband, a brother. That's who he killed."

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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