Judy Garvey, a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman who lives in Blue Hill, got her first disturbing letter about Valdez soon after November 19. It came from Jeff Cookson, who also was celled in Valdez's pod. Cookson told her Valdez had been taken to the dreaded 132-cell supermax, the Special Management Unit or SMU, because of a "bogus charge" that he hadn't gone to his cell when ordered. Cookson said Valdez's "dialysis tubes" had been ripped out of him and he had "bled all over the place."
Cookson added urgently: "He needs someone to come to the prison asap to check his injuries out" before he "dies like an inmate a few months ago." Cookson was referring to Sheldon Weinstein, a 64-year-old, wheelchair-bound sex offender who had died the previous April because — as his widow has charged in a wrongful-death lawsuit against prison officials — of callous and insufficient care following a beating by a group of inmates who pick on sex offenders.
Garvey immediately relayed Cookson's concerns to Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson, his deputy Denise Lord, the legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), and the Disability Rights Center, a federally funded nonprofit. Corrections later told Garvey her concerns were "without merit," OPEGA's director was away from her office for a week but later said she couldn't have done anything anyway, and Garvey said Disability Rights took the information over the phone "but never responded." So help did not arrive for Valdez. On November 27, eight days after he had been thrown in the supermax, he died. Garvey learned of his death in another disturbing letter from Cookson.
Garvey, upset, then contacted several newspaper reporters, Corrections officials once again, and Governor John Baldacci and Attorney General Janet Mills (neither of whom replied, she said). Deputy commissioner Lord told the Bangor Daily News that Valdez had expired from "medical causes in the hospital." Lord said no investigation of Valdez's death would take place, prison personnel had acted appropriately with him, and no more information would be released on him. She told the Phoenix that Cookson would not be allowed to be interviewed.
In his second letter, the one telling about Valdez's death, Cookson wrote Garvey that 15 to 20 inmates "would like to be Victor's voice and tell about the abuse we witnessed," adding, "I knew they were gonna kill that man like I expressed in my letter to you." If a medical examiner looked at Valdez's body, Cookson said, "I believe that it will show physical abuse that contributed to his death."
But no state medical examiner looked at Valdez's body, despite a prison protocol requiring the prison to notify the state police to see if they wished to investigate a prisoner's death. The medical examiner's office, part of the attorney general's office, works hand in glove with the state police. The medical examiner's office assistant told the Phoenix that Valdez's death "didn't meet our criteria" because he was "sick enough" to have died from natural causes. In such a case, a prison physician would sign the death certificate, she said. But who signed it and the cause of death listed is information unavailable to the press and general public, according to the state's Office of Vital Records.