A prison guard disappears amidst allegations of corruption and murder inside Frontera Prison.
Frontera Prison, in California, is one of the largest penitentiaries in America for women. Its maximum-security wing houses some of the state’s most dangerous female offenders. But it’s the alleged criminal activities of some guards and administrators that have drawn the most attention.
It began with the mysterious disappearance of Frontera guard, Jesslyn Rich, in 1984. Some former prison employees believe that Jesslyn was silenced because of what she knew about a prison drug ring run by other guards.
Jesslyn Rich was a 35 year-old divorced mother of two. While working at Frontera, she had maintained a straight “A” average in criminology classes at night school. At the time of her disappearance, Jesslyn had reportedly grown concerned about drug dealing inside the prison walls.
Jesslyn was last seen at a country-western bar on November 11, 1984. She and a friend, Marilyn Ault, were joined by two male acquaintances. Marilyn recalled what happened that night:
Marilyn said that when Jesslyn suddenly excused herself to go to the bathroom, she noticed something suspicious:
Jesslyn Rich literally vanished without a trace. To her family and friends, it seemed out of character for Jesslyn to abandon her children and to scrap her career aspirations. Her family believed that Jessica had been kidnapped and possibly murdered. But police investigators said they had no evidence to support that theory. Jesslyn’s brother, Gary Muntz, wasn’t buying it:
Gary tore apart his sister’s house, searching for clues. When he sifted through Jesslyn’s trash, he said he found evidence that her knowledge of illegal activities at the prison put her life in danger:
The letter had been written to another guard at Frontera. Scrawled on the margin of the last page was Jesslyn’s haunting recital of an apparent threat she had received from the co-worker — that anyone interfering with his drug activities would be taken care of. At the time, this letter was the only concrete evidence indicating that Jesslyn had met with foul play.
The case eventually went cold. Three years later, in 1987, an inmate named Terry Lucas, told a guard that she had information about Jesslyn Rich. She said she was being threatened by other guards to keep quiet. Betty Thompson, a former Frontera prison guard, recounted a conversation she had with Terry:
The next morning, Betty Thompson went to see Terry in the prison infirmary, where she was recovering from a cancer biopsy. Betty described what she found:
Betty said that Terry’s body stayed in the cell for a full three days, before the county coroner’s office was called. According to Thompson, an official from the coroner’s office was mystified by what he found. Betty says there were blades of grass in Terry Lucas’ hair, and multiple bruises on her face, ears, neck, and lower arms. Her right arm appeared to be broken. According to Betty, the official came to a disturbing conclusion:
Betty Thompson said that after the official met with prison administrators in Lucas’ cell, he had a sudden change of heart:
Thompson says that one of her superiors demanded that she change her report on Terry Lucas’ death. According to Thompson, she was subjected to threats and intimidation for six hours:
Thompson says she finally gave in and signed a false report that had been typed for her:
Betty Thompson claims she later received a threatening phone call. The caller told her that if she didn’t learn to do things in a proper manner, she might end up in a muddy ditch. The following day, a prison officer casually asked her if she had received a call alluding to her being found in a ditch. Betty recalled her reaction:
Betty says the menacing calls continued for seven months. Then, in June of 1988, Betty was shot at from a moving car outside her home. Thankfully, she was unhurt. Betty said she immediately called the police, who arrived at her home moments later:
Eventually, the scandal was the subject of several front-page articles in the Orange County Register. These articles supported insider accounts of drug dealing and corruption. That year, Betty Thompson and five other guards testified before State Senate hearings on the alleged offenses at Frontera Prison.
Officials at Frontera declined to be interviewed for this story. However, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections did tell Unsolved Mysteries: