Murder Within the Walls
Despite the fact that no witnesses came forward, progress was made in the first few days of the investigation. Detectives soon learned about the phone call that took Donna Payant away from her fellow officers. Speculation was that it could have been another supervisor who made a late change of assignment and notified Payant where she should respond. However, that theory was quickly discarded when every supervisor on duty at the time of the call was identified and questioned. All denied making the call. C.O. Barbara Hinson told investigators that the voice sounded like a black man and since the caller was not a correction officer, it had to have been an inmate.
Police began the arduous task of interviewing all the inmates who had any possible contact with the victim. This consisted of over 200 prisoners, most of whom were uncooperative. However, some of the prisoners raised the possibility that Payant was slain by another guard. Rumors generated from within the prison walls said that Payant had been killed because she learned that some of the guards were dealing drugs to the inmates. There was no evidence that the rumor was true, but the theory persisted. "It's a popular rumor," said one investigator to reporters, "but we're looking into it. So far, we have no way to substantiate it."
In the meantime, the lockdown continued, raising tensions and putting additional pressure on Greenhaven authorities to expedite the case. State correctional officials responded to oversee the management of the prison and to monitor the progress of the criminal investigation. Police were stumped as to how a guard could disappear inside a maximum-security facility without anyone being aware of it for several hours. But prison guards knew better. "A facility is like a city," one officer told the Poughkeepsie Journal, "I don't think people realize how busy it is... But during the course of a day, it's like being in the streets of a city. The movement is massive." Greenhaven covers 37 acres of ground. It has a dozen cellblocks, a hospital, church, industry buildings, mess halls, athletic field, numerous basements, corridors, its own school, administrative building and dozens of offices and storage areas. It would be easy for someone, especially one who is familiar with the layout of the prison, to disappear for a time.
Complicating the issue was the appearance in Greenhaven, on the day of the murder, of a rookie correction officer from the academy at Albany. This cadet, who resembled Payant, was simply visiting the facility as part of her training program. But several inmates and guards confused her with the victim. They told investigators that they saw the female guard, who they assumed was Donna Payant, in the late afternoon hours, thereby placing the time of death much later than it actually occurred.
When investigators examined the schedule for garbage pick up, they found that virtually anyone had access to the garbage bins and there was no set time as to when the trash was dumped. But with the help of the driver and the location of the body, they were able to ascertain that the remains of Payant were in the front of the truck. That meant the body was picked up with the first load of garbage. When detectives looked further, they discovered that the first dumpster contained the refuse from the chaplain's office area of the prison.
Correction Officer Martin Rahilly told investigators that on the day of the murder at about 1:30 p.m, he had been inside the chaplain's office with an inmate named Alfredo Diaz. Rahilly said that he took Diaz there to make a telephone call to one of Diaz's relatives. While they entered the office, Rahilly noticed that it was in disarray. Papers and desk items were thrown on the floor "as if some force had knocked them over," he later told the court. Rahilly had locked the door behind him and then proceeded to make the call. Suddenly, Rahilly heard a loud banging on the office door and someone yelling, "What are you doing here?"
When Officer Rahilly opened the door, he saw an inmate standing there with a plastic bag under his arm. He recognized the prisoner as one who worked in the chapel and permitted the man to enter. As soon as the inmate saw Officer Rahilly, he calmed down and walked to the rear office while Diaz continued to make his phone call. Several minutes later, Rahilly told detectives, the same inmate came out from the rear office carrying a 55-gallon drum of garbage. The man placed the heavy metal container outside the building and never returned. When asked if he knew the inmate, Rahilly said his name was Lemuel Smith.