On November 6, 2016, 25-year-old Utah police officer Cody Brotherson was hit by a car. The young cop had been laying down spikes to stop three teens from driving off with what appeared to be a stolen vehicle when they struck him. He died at the scene.
Frederick "Ricky" Turner was close to Brotherson, his nephew. The young man's death—preceded by the deaths of both his own parents—threw 35-year-old Turner into an addictive spiral.
"He started self-medicating with meth," said Mandy Richards, Turner's sister.
Turner, who lived in northern Virginia, soon met a man named Bassam Ramadan on Grindr and started hanging around his house, doing and dealing meth. On August 10, 2017, Turner acted as middle-man between Ramadan and an undercover cop, helping sell the officer 125 grams of meth. At Ramadan's request, he added a gun to the package, though Turner subsequently insisted the gun wasn't his and didn't appear to have ever used it. He later took part in a second sale of an ounce of meth to an undercover, according to his federal indictment, which said that firearms were present during both transactions.
A few weeks before he was arrested on drug charges, Turner asked his sisters for help, but the family didn't have the money to send him to rehab.
At Turner's trial, prosecutors stacked the gun and drug charges. As the Washington Post reported, the convictions on two counts of having a firearm while dealing drugs stretched his sentence by 30 years, all mandatory minimums: five years for his first sale and 25 for his second, plus 10 years for the drug crimes. That added up to 40 years in federal prison. Months later, the First Step Act, a modest package of criminal justice reforms, was signed into law by President Trump. Had he been sentenced after the law was in effect, Turner would likely have been looking at 20 years.
It gets worse.
Because of his lengthy sentence, Turner was sent to USP Florence, part of the complex that includes America's notorious "supermax" prison in Colorado, dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies." After repeatedly expressing fear of gang-related violence to his loved ones, he was found dead there last month. It took about two weeks for the prison to release his body, according to his family, and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not yet provided an official cause of death. That left Turner's loved ones to grapple with why the system locked up a man struggling with addiction—who they say amounted to a bit player in a larger drug scheme—for so long. Advocates pointed to Turner's insistence on going to trial, a relative rarity in the modern system, as having played a key role in his death, and a testament to just how easy it still is to get trapped in America's mass incarceration nightmare.
"He decided to go to trial because we didn't know anything about the federal criminal justice system," Richards said. "We had no idea. Ricky believed in our justice system. Unfortunately."
In the six months before his trial, Turner had held down two jobs, passed all of his drug tests, took part in Narcotics Anonymous, and attended church, according to his family. He stayed with Richards, who told Judge T.S. Ellis that he was a calming influence on her son, Nathan, who has autism. "Ricky has not had a violent bone in his being his entire life," she wrote to the judge.
It didn't matter.
At sentencing, Ellis—who drew ire when he sentenced Paul Manafort to just 47 months in prison in March—expressed frustration at the mandatory sentence he was imposing. "This situation presents me with something I have no discretion to change and the only thing I can do is express my displeasure," he said. "I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law. If I thought it was blatantly immoral, I'd have to resign. It's wrong, but not immoral."
Still, Ellis went so far as to wonder aloud in court about Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina Cuellar, a prosecutor on the case, commenting that her having a baby—she was on maternity leave during sentencing—might make her more "soft hearted." (Cuellar's office declined to comment on the case.)
For Turner, the transition to life inside America's most notorious prison complex went even worse than expected.
"I will die here. I am terrified," Turner wrote in the months before his death, according to his family. "Please help get me out of here."
The prison seemed to be dominated by a White Supremacist gang on the one hand and a Mexican drug cartel on the other, he explained, adding that the White Supremacists tried to get him to join, but he refused.
Richards and Turner's other sisters mobilized to get him transferred. They didn't claim he was innocent—just that, as a first-time nonviolent drug offender, he should not spend 40 years in a maximum security prison they believed to be run by gangs.
At least one juror who convicted him agrees. "It was an addiction problem," said Paul St. Louis, who wrote an op-ed expressing his regrets about the case for the Post. "The guy got caught up in something he shouldn't have gotten caught up in. But he wasn't the ringleader. It wasn't a cartel you were dealing with, or a career criminal."
The kids who mowed down Turner's cop nephew—ages 14, 15, and 16, killing him in the line of duty—took plea deals and were sentenced to serve at a juvenile facility until they turned 21. Ramadan, who'd been the ringleader of the meth ring and testified against Turner, got 16 years.
Turner, meanwhile, spent the last months of his life in constant terror.
"He was scared from the minute he got there and referred to a 'watcher' in almost all correspondence, so he couldn't talk too much," Richards said, alluding to someone the family believed to be a gang-member keeping tabs on Turner.
Before Turner's death, his family appealed to everyone, from state lawmakers to a judge in Virginia to Donald Trump. They thought they had some traction when Turner's lawyer got the government to agree to a Rule 35 Motion, in which he would agree to testify in the case and relinquish his right to appeal, in exchange for a reduced sentence that might get him transferred back to Virginia. But a combination of bureaucratic delays caused by the government shutdown and an allegation by prosecutors that Turner perjured himself at trial made it clear he was months away—if not longer—from a reprieve, Richards said.
Turner signaled he might not last that long.
As Richards recalled, "When my brother got that news, he said, 'They'll kill me before that.'"
On June 13, Richards got a phone call from Turner's case worker. "He called to say Ricky has passed away. He would not tell us any details," she said.
The family has still not learned about the cause of death, and said it took two weeks for his body to be released to them. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the family's account of how the death was reported and investigated, and when asked about the cause of death, suggested VICE submit a FOIA request. (VICE submitted such a request in July and will update this story when material comes in.)
"This is what everyone's fear is," said Kevin Ring, executive director of FAMM, an advocacy group that worked on Turner's case. "A low-level drug dealer gets swept up in conspiracy charges. Ends up in the U.S. penitentiary with killers. And then the guy's fucking dead in less than a year. It's so sick."
When Ricky’s body made it to a funeral parlor, the sisters were scared to look at him. Finally, one of them drew the courage to pull down the sheet. He had decomposed substantially in the time the prison had kept his body, but they could still see what looked like gashes on his face, according to Richards and another sister, Tari Turner. The funeral director tried to cover them up.
Turner's family doesn't claim to know what happened to him, but they can't help suspecting gang violence. Suicide is also a possibility they felt no choice but to consider.
"During the course of his time in custody while at Florence High USP, he had requested (sometimes begged) for me to pay specific amounts of money to different people in order for him to have 'protection' while in prison," said Jenny Brotherson, Turner's other sister and the mother of his nephew. "This was constant and continued up until his death."
Since her brother's death, Richards said, several inmates have reached out to the family to offer condolences and let her know her little brother had been helping them research their cases, and that he'd introduced them to educational tools offered in the prison.
"They let us know that, even with how horrible Ricky's situation in there was, he still helped some who needed it," she said.
Not that that provided much solace.
"My brother was just sent there to die," she said. "I know prison isn't supposed to be fun. But it's also not supposed to be torture."
Correction 07/12/2019: A previous version of this story said Turner was sent to ADX Florence, when in fact he was sent to USP Florence-High, a high-security prison at the same complex, but a distinct facility. We regret the error.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Tana Ganeva on Twitter.