Inmate: I strangled prisoners to try to land on death row

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.

Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons’ hospitality. None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Why did they do it?

Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive. Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn’t allow in-person interviews with inmates. So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip’s attorney responded with an email: “Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him.”

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate’s time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had “a whole lot in common” from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

“I’d always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren’t going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty,” Simmons, told the AP. “The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it.”

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder.

In May 2010, Simmons shot an acquaintance, 45-year-old Sheila Faye Dodd of Round O, an unincorporated community northwest of Charleston. Prosecutors say he ate a pizza he’d bought with the dead woman’s debit card, picked her 13-year-old son, William, up from school and killed him.

Simmons agreed to plead guilty in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.

In August 2015, Philip pleaded guilty but mentally ill to strangling his girlfriend, Ashley Kaney, 26, and her 8-year-old daughter, Riley Burdick, two years earlier. At the time, he’d been attending the U.S. Navy’s nuclear training school in nearby Goose Creek.

Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren’t serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers.

“It’s just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out,” Simmons said.

Because of their relatively clean records in custody, Simmons said he and Philip, 26, were named “dormkeepers” for their unit. That meant their doors remained open when others were on lockdown.

Just two officers were assigned to the dorm, which housed 139 inmates, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told lawmakers in April. He said pay that starts at $33,600 and chronic low funding from the Legislature make it almost impossible to even approach the national standard of four officers for every 30 inmates.

About 9:30 the morning of April 7, Simmons said, he hung a “flap” over the narrow window to his room — in this case, a clear trash bag on which he’d scrawled the words, “Using restroom. Don’t open.”

“You’re not supposed to keep a flap,” Simmons said. “But if you’re using the restroom, you know, they turn a blind eye to it.”

Simmons said the original plan was to wait until cells were being cleaned, “where ALL the doors were open.” But that morning, they opted for a different strategy.

“We just decided, you know, we’d use my room,” he said. “Until it was full. And then we’d use Jacob’s. And that’s just how it started.”

So, how did they choose their victims?

“This is the part that’s gonna sound bad,” Simmons said. “They, they trusted us. We talked to these people every day. One of them was a friend of both of ours. And they just trusted us. We come up with something for each one.”

The first name on the list was King, who was in for burglary, theft and larceny.

They knew King liked coffee. And there was a bonus, in Simmons’ mind: At 5-foot-4 and just 132 pounds, he was the smallest.

“He was older, but he was small,” Simmons said. “And he wouldn’t offer much resistance.”

Since Philip was the experienced strangler, he took the first turn, Simmons said.

“He took his from behind and put his arm on his neck and just choked him,” he said. “It happened really fast.”

They slid King’s body under the lower bunk and went looking for their next victim in the common area known as “the Rock.”

William Scruggs, killer of a disabled veteran, was waiting in line for the restroom. Simmons knew him as a lifer who did laundry in exchange for goods from the canteen.

“I said I had some cookies for him. ‘Just come up to my room,’” Simmons said. Scruggs showed up a few minutes later, and Simmons said Philip dragged him to the floor.

Unlike Philip, Simmons said, he’d never strangled anyone.

“It’s totally different than killing somebody with your hands,” he said.

Simmons said he grabbed an extension cord from a lamp and wrapped it around Scruggs’ neck. Scruggs was facing him, but his eyes were closed.

“And, you know, he didn’t suffer a long time, man,” Simmons said. “I know that sounds lame. But he didn’t suffer a long time.”

The two placed Scruggs’ body, the cord still tied around his neck, on the lower bunk. They hung a sheet from the top bunk to conceal the corpse, then went in search of their next victim.

Simmons said Philip chose Jimmy Ham, who was to be released in November after serving nearly a decade for aggravated assault and battery, grand larceny and two counts of burglary.

“I didn’t want him on the list, because I knew he would fight,” Simmons said. “And Jacob, as big as he is, he’s not a fighter.”

But Philip prevailed, and Ham was invited in to snort some drugs.

Simmons said Philip told their guest to break up the tablets on a stool that was in the room. As Ham bent over the stool, Simmons said, Philip pounced — but he slipped.

Simmons said Ham had Philip pinned down on his back. As the two men struggled on the floor, Simmons said he grabbed a broken broom handle that he’d hidden in his room and hit Ham twice in the head with it. In the struggle, Simmons tried to silence Ham by jamming the broomstick in his mouth (“there could be no noise”) and Ham “just died. I mean, he died very fast.”

Simmons said they placed Ham’s body on the bunk beside Scruggs and let the curtain fall back into place.

“And we just went on the Rock,” Simmons said with a sigh, “and Jacob said, ‘Who’s next?’”

Simmons chose Jason Howard Kelley, who was serving time for stabbing his teenage stepson.

Everything about Kelley “was just annoying,” Simmons said. But unlike the others, he considered Kelley a friend.

Once in the cell, Simmons said, Philip told Kelley, “Look behind the curtain.”

“And he literally peeked behind and he said, ‘What the?’” Simmons recalled. “And Jacob grabbed him and threw him down.”

Simmons said he climbed on top of his friend and pressed the broomstick against his throat until he stopped struggling. And as Kelley lay there — dead or just unconscious, Simmons couldn’t tell which — Simmons thrust the stick in his ear.

By then, the murderers were too tired to bother with hiding Kelley’s body. When they stepped outside, Simmons said, he asked Philip, “Who do you want to do now?”

“I’m tired,” Philip replied, according to Simmons. “I don’t want to do anymore.”

“And I said, ‘Are you sure? Because this is going to be our only chance,’” Simmons recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah.’”

It was just before 10 a.m., about 15 minutes before the next head count. Simmons said they walked down to the guard station and told what they’d done.

The Department of Corrections referred the AP’s questions to the State Law Enforcement Division, which has declined to comment on the case.

Simmons was asked why he did not commit suicide, if prison life was unbearable.

He said he’d tried several times: “You know, killing yourself is, it sounds easy. It’s really hard. Your body even fights you when you cut yourself.”

He said he’d even discussed having Philip “choke me out.”

“The original plan was that if I decided that I wanted to do it, I would be the last person,” he said. “And I’ll be honest with you. After I saw how it works, I guess you would say I was scared. I just couldn’t see myself going through with it.”

Simmons expressed no remorse for the killings.

“Honestly, we could have got staff members,” he said. “But they’re just there doing their job, you know? The people we killed, whether they deserved it or not, were not fine, upstanding members of society. You know, none of us are, or we wouldn’t be in where we’re at.”

And the more you kill, he said, the easier it gets.

“The second time, the third time, it’s just, I guess you’re desensitized to it.”

In retrospect, he said, the plan was not well thought out.

“Because Jacob’s not going to get the death penalty either way,” he said. “He’s legitimately mentally ill.”

As for himself, South Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution in six years, and court challenges likely will keep capital punishment on hold for the foreseeable future. Even a recently confessed killer of seven got life without parole, he noted.

Simmons said he imagines he’ll do the next 10 years in solitary and probably get another four life sentences tacked onto the two he was already doing.

“I did it all, I did it for nothing,” he said. “So that makes it especially bad for me, you know?”


Breed, an Associated Press national writer, reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.