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.
Simmons 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 importantly, both despair and a willingness to kill again.
Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder.
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.
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.
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 that King liked coffee. And there was a bonus, in Simmons’ mind: At 5-foot-4 and just 132 pounds, he was the smallest.
Since Philip was the experienced strangler, he took the first turn, Simmons said.
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.
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 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.
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 any more.” “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.
“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.
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, 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?”