Murder Within the Walls
Prison officials were immediately notified of C.O. Donna Payant's failure to report to her roll call at 6:00 p.m. Initially, guards telephoned around the prison in an attempt to locate her. It was thought that because she was new to Greenhaven, she might have gotten sidetracked for some unknown reason. But within minutes, supervisors realized something was wrong. They discovered that Payant never reported to any of her afternoon assignments. Failure to respond to an assignment in a prison is a serious matter. A physical search was undertaken as every available correction officer scoured the huge facility to look for the missing officer. By 8:00 p.m., no trace of her had been found. The warden ordered an instant lock-down, a situation where every prisoner is locked inside his cell until further notice.
Throughout a tense evening, the search continued. Shortly after 12:00 a.m., a special 200-man search team arrived at the facility to assist prison guards. Trained bloodhounds were brought in to track the scent of Donna Payant. The dogs proceeded down the east and west corridors and into the A and D blocks. They were led into the hospital area but showed no conclusive reactions. The dogs were not taken to the chapel area. In the prison yard, two giant dumpsters sat outside the mess hall. These containers were used to dump some of the garbage generated by the facility. Two officers actually climbed into the metal bins and crawled though the stinking refuse without finding anything.
Lights remained on for the entire night as hundreds of State Police, guards and prison staff searched every inch of Greenhaven for the missing correction officer. It seemed impossible, but she was nowhere to be found. There was even some speculation that she had left the prison completely without being seen. But officials quickly discounted that possibility when every gatekeeper was located and interviewed. There was simply no way for an officer to walk out of the prison without being noticed. Guards began to conduct a search of each cellblock and then each individual cell. The mess halls were turned upside down and the industry buildings were searched from the roofs to the basements.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 16, a garbage truck was called in to empty the dumpsters. As the contents of the bins were dumped into the truck, officers stood by with flashlights and watched as the trash went into the back of the truck. They saw nothing suspicious. Each of the dumpsters were emptied and compacted. When the vehicle was full, it was allowed to leave the Greenhaven facility. From there, the trash was taken to the standard dumping ground near the town of Amenia, some 20 miles away from the prison.
Two correction officers accompanied the garbage truck, driven by Peter Cooper, a civilian employee, to the dumpsite. When the truck emptied the load, the trash was spread out on the ground and searched once again. At about 10:30 a.m., the dozer operator noticed a human leg sticking out from a green plastic bag. Cooper walked over to the spot. "I saw about an inch of stomach," he later testified, "and let go of the bag. That was it." When the officers investigated, they found Donna Payant's body wrapped inside three plastic bags. Her hands were tied around her back. Her uniform was ripped and there was a dark colored cord wrapped tightly around her neck. She had severe cutting injuries on her nose, lips and eyelids. Her nipples appeared to have been either cut or bitten off and there were some strange bruises on her cheek and neck.