GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Ku Klux Klan hit man pulled a burner phone from his pocket and showed his Klan brother a photograph of a slain black man in rural north Florida.
“Is that what you wanted?” the hit man asked his Klan brother, a 25-year-old prison guard.
“Yes sir, thank you brother,” the guard told him.
Officials said the supposed hit man was an FBI criminal informant who recorded those scenes and others over the past year. They said he faked pictures of the black man’s death to help build a case against three Klan members who worked at a Florida prison.
The men were charged Thursday with plotting to kill a black inmate after his release because they believed he is infected with HIV and hepatitis and he bit one of them during a fight, officials said.
The case is the latest black eye for the troubled state prison system.
The three men –Thomas Jordan Driver, David Elliot Moran, 47, and Charles Thomas Newcomb, 42 – each face one state count of conspiracy to commit murder, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said in a statement.
The state said the murder plot started after Driver, an officer at the Department of Corrections Reception and Medical Center in rural north Florida, had a fight with the inmate.
Moran is a sergeant there. Newcomb was fired in 2013 for failing to meet training requirements, according to the department.
Bondi’s office said the three were also members of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The group has garnered attention in recent months for distributing flyers that likened protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, to terrorists.
The FBI was alerted to the murder plot by a confidential informant inside the Klan, according to an arrest affidavit. The informant was present when Driver and Moran talked with Newcomb, identified as the KKK chapter’s “Exalted Cyclops” or leader, and recorded many of their conversations.
In late 2014, authorities say Driver gave the Klan chapter, called a klavern, a photograph of the inmate, who’d been let out on supervised release.
“Both Driver and Moran … told the (confidential informant) that they wanted (the inmate) ‘six feet under',” the FBI’s affidavit said.
The informant recorded all three men making plans to murder the inmate, according to the affidavit. In the recordings, the men often refer to the inmate using a racial epithet.
Their first attempt to find and kill the inmate failed and the informant recorded a conversation with Driver to confirm he still wanted him dead, the affidavit said.
“Do you want this guy terminated?” the informant asked.
“Yes sir,” Driver replied, according to the affidavit.
In March, the FBI gave the informant the burner cellphone with the doctored photograph of the inmate who looked like he’d been fatally shot. The informant showed all three men the picture and recorded their jubilant reactions.
Moran and Driver both smiled when they saw the picture, and Driver shook the informant’s hand in gratitude, according to the affidavit.
The case highlights an ongoing stream of high-profile problems in Florida’s prison system.
Last fall, prison system officials fired nearly 50 employees, including several over allegations that they punched and beat inmates.
The deaths of inmates Randall Jordan-Aparo and Darren Rainey also drew attention.
Jordan-Aparo was reportedly gassed in a confinement cell at the Franklin Correctional Institution. Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, was punished in 2012 with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body at Dade Correctional Institution. The warden there was fired.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who was hired late last year to lead the troubled agency, called the arrests “disquieting.”
“We are moving swiftly to terminate the employees arrested today and working closely with Office of the Attorney General to assist in their prosecution,” she said in a statement.
“Our Department has zero tolerance for racism or prejudice of any kind. The actions of these individuals are unacceptable and do not, in any way, represent the thousands of good, hardworking honorable correctional officers employed at the Department of Corrections.”
The case will be prosecuted in Columbia County in north Florida.
Driver and Moran were being held in Union County jail. Newcomb was in Alachua County Jail with bond set at $750,000.
Frank Ancona, imperial wizard of the KKK group to which the three men were said to belong, did not confirm or deny their membership.
“We at the TAK do not in any way condone, tolerate, or support any type of illegal activity in our organization and because of this we would stand by any of our members pending a decision by a court of law, not a decision of the court of media or public opinion,” Ancona said.