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  • Caitlin Rother

Caged with an uncuffed, three-time killer at San Quentin prison

Updated: Oct 2, 2019


This is an excerpt from the freshly updated version of DEAD RECKONING, which is now available for pre-order at a discount price, for delivery to your Kindle. The book will also be available as a trade paperback:

In December 2014, murderabilia dealer William Harder posted a photo of himself with Skylar on Facebook. After a friend shared it on my page, it took me several minutes to process what I was looking at.

I soon realized that the small-breasted female figure in the sky-blue top, wearing a long side ponytail, makeup, and a coy smile, was Skylar Deleon. Skylar was smiling, looking cozy with Harder. She was touching his forearm as he leaned against her from behind, his cheek against her head and his arms resting on her shoulders.

I contacted Harder, and we spoke by phone. I also met him and his wife in person. He said he had a girlfriend as well, but he was only “just friends” with Skylar because of their circumstances, i.e. prison bars. He had developed romantic feelings for her and thought she was “really pretty.”

Harder felt a calling to visit death row killers in several states, including Skylar, whom he said he’d visited about ten times in the past year.

“She is the only girl that I currently visit,” he said, “so I get to take a little bit cuter photos.”

. . . .

After a sleepless night at the hotel, I made my way along the yellow stripe on the asphalt leading from the San Quentin prison gates, past the stone marker commemorating correctional officers who had died in the line of duty, and into the historic visiting building.

Inside, prison officials confiscated my ten sheets of paper and gave me a yellow notepad, presumably so I couldn’t smuggle in any contraband. I was told to wait in an empty unit along a row of metal cages, in which prisoners calmly ate lunch one-on-one with their visitors.

This was a very different set up from the Santa Ana jail, where a protective glass barrier separated me from Skylar when I’d met with her there in 2009. This time, a correctional officer led a handcuffed Skylar directly into my cage, closed the door and locked us inside together, with two chairs and a table. Then Skylar put her wrists through a slot in the door to have the cuffs removed.

I have to admit that being locked in a cage with a transgender inmate who had slit one man’s throat and drowned two other people by tying them to an anchor was one of the most bizarre situations in which I’d found myself since I’d started writing about the mentally ill in jails and prisons twenty-five years earlier.

. . . .

“Last time we talked she seemed real happy,” Harder told me before my visit. “She’s not down or hurting herself or talking about hurting herself. She seems to be programming and listening to her doctors and doing the program they’ve set forth for her. The prison program.”

That seemed visibly obvious to me as we sat in that cage, and Skylar pleasantly answered almost all of my questions. She seemed more calm, lucid, and rational than I’d ever seen her.

Soon after I returned home, one of her appellate attorneys, who is paid by the state, informed me by letter that if I quoted any of Skylar’s comments from our visit he would file a lawsuit.

He contended that Skylar wasn’t mentally capable of giving informed consent to an interview, and without a legal guardian, neither could anyone else. This same attorney forced Skylar to cut ties with Harder, who was quite upset by this.

That said, he could not stop me from conveying my observations or information that I obtained from other sources about Skylar.

It is customary to buy an inmate lunch during a visit (they aren’t allowed to touch money), so I put $9.50 in quarters into the vending machine to purchase the chicken quesadilla and two avocados that Skylar wanted. I eyed the tines of the plastic “spork”—combination spoon-fork—and wondered if this was such a good idea. (I’d already ruled out the knife, plastic or not.)

Later, when she asked to borrow my pen to draw me a picture, I hesitated, vividly imagining her jamming it into my neck before a correctional officer could get to me. But I also knew from our four previous visits just how much Skylar loved talking about cutting off her male genitalia, so I figured I was probably safe.

As we talked, I noticed that Skylar wasn’t wearing the mascara or lip gloss I’d seen in the Facebook photos, but she no longer had a heavy beard or body hair. Her eyes were puffy, as if she’d just woken up. She was wearing women’s socks and a bra underneath her top. Her sneakers were laced up with plastic bags, rather than shoelaces, with which inmates can hang themselves.

I also saw a series of raised purplish welts on the pale underside of her forearms, where my sources told me that she’d sliced herself in multiple suicide attempts—vertically, not horizontally, which means business.

My sources had told me about her previous trips to the acute-care unit and her habit of head-banging, which caused bumps to protrude from her forehead “like a unicorn.”

“She ran full force into a metal door and knocked herself out, every other week, just to get attention to get up on the fourth floor, which was the medical crisis-bed unit, to get people to talk to her and to talk to them,” one correctional officer told me.



That's it for the excerpt. If you'd like to buy the book, please go here.

To view the photo gallery, please go here.



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