Waupun prison warden, 8 staff members charged following inmate death probe

Guards at Wisconsin's oldest maximum-security prison failed to provide basic care for inmates who died on their watch, including one who died of dehydration and another who wasn't found for at least 12 hours after he died of a stroke, authorities said Wednesday in announcing charges against the warden and eight members of his staff.

Waupun Correctional Institution’s warden, Randall Hepp, is charged with misconduct in public office. The other eight face charges of felony inmate abuse. Three of them are also charged with misconduct.

"We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin in a dangerous and reckless manner," Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, who led the investigation, said at a news conference announcing the charges.

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Hepp faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison if he's convicted. He announced last week that he planned to retire at the end of June. He said in an email to Waupun staff that he had helped improve "safety and order" at the prison.

Hepp’s attorney, Robert Webb, declined to comment.

Three of the four deaths are subject to federal lawsuits. The state Department of Corrections is investigating the prison’s operations, and the governor last year asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into contraband smuggling at the facility.

Warden Randall Hepp

Department of Corrections Secretary Jared Hoy said in a statement that more than 20 people remain under internal investigation, at least eight are on leave and nine others were fired or have retired since the probe began a year ago. Hoy asked the sheriff to keep his probe open and share all of his findings. Schmidt said he could reopen the investigation if the internal probe reveals additional evidence.

The first of the four inmates who died, Dean Hoffman, killed himself in solitary confinement last June. Hoffman's daughter filed a federal lawsuit in February alleging that prison officials failed to provide her father with adequate mental health care and medications.

Tyshun Lemons and Cameron Williams were both found dead at the facility in October. Dodge County Medical Examiner PJ Schoebel said Lemons overdosed on acetyl fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller, and Williams died of a stroke.

Donald Maier was found dead at the prison in February. Schmidt said his death was ruled a homicide due to malnutrition and dehydration.

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All of the charges are related to the deaths of Williams and Maier.

Williams told an inmate advocate three days before he died that he needed to go to the hospital but no action was taken, according to a criminal complaint. He had fallen in the shower and had to crawl into his cell two days earlier, and a day before that he collapsed on the way back to his cell, but neither fall was documented, the complaint said.

He died of a stroke sometime on Oct. 29, but his body wasn't discovered until late the next morning, at least 12 hours after he died, according to the complaint. The nurse, sergeant and lieutenant charged in his death never checked on him that night, the complaint said.

Maier had severe mental health problems but he either refused or wasn't given his medication in the eight days leading up to his death, according to a separate complaint.

8 staffers arrested

An inmate told investigators that Maier flooded his cell, resulting in guards turning off his water. Six days before he died, he told a staff member that he "wants water, water, water, all the water in the world" and acted like he was swimming around his cell. Guards also saw him drinking from his toilet, the complaint said.

Guards said they turned the water off and on for Maier, but investigators said no one ever told him when it was on, according to the complaint. Guards also didn't bring him any food in the four days leading up to his death, the complaint said.

Asked if his employees understand the prison's water shut-off policy, Hepp told them that policies go out via email but he doesn't think anybody at any institution really reads them and that no jail in the United States documents inmates' every meal.

Attorney Mark Hazelbaker is representing Gwendolyn Vick, a nurse charged with abuse in connection with Williams' death. According to the complaint, a nurse from an earlier shift told her that Williams was laying on the floor of his cell but she never checked on him. She told investigators that she told the guards that she wasn't sure it was necessary to enter his cell because Williams was always trying to get a hospital trip, the complaint said.

Hazelbaker said Vick is "very sad" that four people died at the prison but she wasn't responsible for anybody's death. She's entitled to be heard on the issues involved in providing prison health care, he said, adding that the real incompetence lies with the Department of Corrections in failing to properly staff and replace the aging prison.

Waupun had a 43% staff vacancy rate at the end of May, according to agency data.

"I can't stress enough that this is a system failure of massive proportions," Hazelbaker said. "It is dangerous. People don't want to work there."

Waupun’s problems extend beyond the inmate deaths. Gov. Tony Evers’ office said in March that federal investigators were looking into a suspected smuggling ring involving prison employees.

Evers said Wednesday in reaction to the charges being filed that everyone who failed to do their job will be held accountable.

Republican legislators renewed their calls Wednesday for Evers to close the prison in Waupun as well as another maximum-security prison in Green Bay. Both prisons were built in the 1800s.

"Tony Evers can’t keep his head in the sand anymore," said state Sen. Van Wanggaard, chairperson of the Senate committee that oversees state prisons.

Official statements

Wisconsin DOC Secretary Hoy

The department has been in regular communication and collaboration with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office throughout this process. We have cooperated fully with Dodge County’s investigation, and we will continue to do so as we also continue to fully cooperate with the ongoing federal law enforcement investigation initiated at our request in June 2023 into potential criminal activities occurring at WCI.

Maintaining the safety of people in our care and staff, as well as local communities, continues to be the DOC’s top priority. Ensuring accountability for every individual who fails to uphold the DOC’s high standards of conduct is a critical part of safety and security both within our institutions and beyond them, and we appreciate the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office’s efforts toward this important goal. 

However, it is in service of the Department of Corrections’ goals of transparency and accountability that we are requesting that the Dodge County Sheriff's Office not conclude their investigation at this time. We are specifically requesting that the Dodge County Sheriff ’s Office leave its investigation open as the department’s own internal investigation remains ongoing. We are further requesting additional conversations with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office to discuss additional individuals who may be relevant to their investigation.

We have worked closely with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office throughout this process and we will continue to do so until this work has been thoroughly completed.

As a result of the DOC’s internal investigations at WCI that initially began in March 2023, over 20 individuals remain under internal investigation. An additional nine individuals, against whom criminal charges have not been filed at this time, are no longer employed at the department. An additional at least eight individuals at WCI remain on administrative leave based on DOC’s internal investigations, and we anticipate additional individuals will be placed on administrative leave, may be terminated, and potentially referred for criminal charges pending the conclusion of DOC’s internal or other law enforcement investigations, which remain ongoing.

As with any death of any individual in our care, immediate internal investigations were initiated, and local law enforcement authorities were notified to be able to conduct their own additional investigation. On June 3, 2024, the department was first made aware of forthcoming criminal charges against several individuals being referred and charged in Dodge County. The department has not yet received the final Dodge County medical examiner’s reports on the cause of death for Cameron Williams or Donald Maier, or the investigative report from the Dodge County’s Sheriff’s Office at this point.

At this time, all nine of these individuals against whom criminal charges have now been filed are either no longer employed at the department or are on unpaid administrative leave. Prior to these charges, warden excluded, all of these individuals were either under ongoing DOC internal investigation or had been placed on administrative leave or terminated based upon DOC’s internal investigations.

Based upon the allegations against these nine individuals, neither the department nor the state will be providing legal representation for these individuals in these criminal proceedings.

As internal and law enforcement agency investigations remain ongoing for which additional charges may be filed, we cannot comment further as to ongoing investigations or specific individuals’ statuses at this time as we continue to fully cooperate with local and federal law enforcement agencies as we have from the beginning of these processes.

Additional information regarding the current status of staffing, modified movement, or other efforts at may be found here.

Gov. Tony Evers

"I appreciate the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office for their work in this investigation. Last June, the Department of Corrections and I asked federal law enforcement agencies to help investigate criminal activity at Waupun, and that investigation remains ongoing. It has been my expectation from the beginning that the DOC and its staff would fully comply with law enforcement and internal investigations, and that continues to be my expectation.

"Each and every person who’s failed to do their job to the high level that we expect or treat people in our care with the dignity, humanity, and respect they deserve should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law—it’s that simple. There must be accountability and justice. And I believe accountability and justice insist that both internal and law enforcement investigations must continue until they have been exhaustively and thoroughly completed.

"Today, I am directing the DOC to continue their ongoing, internal investigations through to completion, notwithstanding the Dodge County Sheriff indicating his investigation is completed based on charges filed in Dodge County today. I am further directing the department to provide the results of its investigations to the Dodge County Sherriff’s Office for further investigation and potential charges, as is appropriate.

"I am also directing the department to release the results of their internal investigations in a report that shall be released publicly, and in its entirety, to the fullest extent state and federal laws allow, and at such time it will not impede upon or jeopardize any ongoing law enforcement investigations.

"We have an obligation to make sure that people in our care, officers and staff, and our communities are safe. And the criminal justice system must hold every wrongdoer to account."

State Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh)

"The conclusions released from this investigation are incredibly troubling. These findings highlight the lack of leadership by Governor Tony Evers and the state Department of Corrections to protect the basic safety and constitutional rights of inmates in our state.

"We recognize some of the challenges facing our correctional facilities, in part due to ongoing staff shortages. It’s why we championed the efforts in the most recent state budget to increase wages for security staff at state prisons, which have been successful in reducing vacancies and increasing recruitment for correctional officer positions. But it is clear from these investigations the challenges within our corrections system go much deeper and there must be stronger accountability to ensure facilities are complying with the law and that the constitutional rights of those incarcerated are upheld.

"We fear the issues brought to light from this investigation are pervasive, and the legislative committees will be looking further into the problems caused by the lack of leadership by the Evers Administration to better understand the wholeness of the situation.

"These deaths – and the issues that have caused an ongoing federal investigation into WCI – call for better accountability in our state prison system, similar to the statutorily required oversight that occurs in our county jails. Our offices will spend the coming days and months working with stakeholders to explore options for creating more transparency and accountability in our state correctional facilities."

State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine)

"I appreciate Sheriff Dale Schmidt’s action to hold Waupun’s warden and personnel accountable for the disastrous conditions at his prison. Waupun has seen preventable prison deaths, rampant drug and contraband dealing, and a year-long lockdown. The warden may have been arrested, but the buck doesn’t stop there.

"Tony Evers can’t keep his head in the sand anymore. Waupun and Green Bay Correctional need to be replaced. He knows it. The Department, the guards and even the inmates know it. Five years ago, Governor Evers said he wanted comprehensive criminal justice reform in order to replace the outdated, inefficient prisons. Five years later, we’re still waiting for his plan. It’s time for him to govern and lay his cards on the table."