92 awardees recognized at Medal of Valor ceremony

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by CDCR Staff Photographer Eric Owens
and Alan Barrett, Promotional Specialist for California Prison Industry Authority

From rescuing a child from a burning vehicle to subduing violent attacks and even saving the life of an institution K-9, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) staff are known for going above and beyond the call of duty.

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CDCR honored 92 employees Sept. 17 during its annual Medal of Valor Ceremony. The Medal of Valor is earned by employees distinguishing themselves by conspicuous bravery or heroism above and beyond the normal demands of correctional service. The Medal of Valor is the highest honor CDCR bestows upon its employees.

This year’s Medal of Valor recipients are Sean Copeland and Richard Glassman, youth correctional counselors (YCC) at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility (VYCF), who broke up a violent inmate attack while keeping the institution secure; and Correctional Sergeant (Sgt.) Benny Diaz of Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), who saved the lives of motorists by shooting an armed carjacker who had already killed two people.

“The employees we are honoring today are testaments to the genuine concern, compassion and commitment of which we are all capable,” said CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard. “While facing danger or adversity, several of these men and women have demonstrated split-second decision-making, bravery and integrity. Others have shown a level of teamwork so very necessary to rise to the unexpected challenges that life can bring. In all cases, their actions were above and beyond the call of duty. Today’s honorees, their noble acts and innovative ideas are an inspiration to us all.”

CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard, left, with Medal of Valor recipient Sgt. Benny Diaz, Pleasant Valley State Prison.

CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard, left, with Medal of Valor recipient Sgt. Benny Diaz, Pleasant Valley State Prison.

Sgt. Diaz was off-duty when he witnessed a gunman walking up to vehicles and shooting motorists. When Diaz moved to intervene, his wife tried to stop him, but he told her, “Babe, I’ve got to go – duty.”

Diaz and another armed civilian approached the shooter. Diaz shot and wounded the gunman, who fled in a stolen SUV that he crashed a short time later. The shooter died of his wounds.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer hailed Diaz as a hero, but if you ask the sergeant, he’ll tell you he just did what had to be done.

“It never crossed my mind my actions would be considered brave,” he said. “My wife and I were in the car and I witnessed a tragedy happening in front of me, and I knew he had to be stopped.”

Diaz credits his training both in his 16 years with CDCR and four years as a U.S. Marine for his quick reaction in keeping civilians safe. He emphasized his gratitude to his USMC brothers for everything they have done for him, and to his family, friends and PVSP family for all their support.

He pointed out that the In-Service Training Department at PVSP conducts reality-based training with scenarios very similar to the one he found himself in that day in Fresno.

“My reaction felt natural, and I never second-guessed it,” he said.

“Pleasant Valley is proud to have Sgt. Diaz as a part of our team,” said Warden Scott Frauenheim. “We train to be responders, never knowing if or when we will have to act on that training. He took the initiative and risked his life to protect the public around him. Without his bravery and courage, that day could have been even more tragic for the community.”

CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard, center, with Medal of Valor recipients Youth Correctional Counselor Sean Copeland, left, and Richard Glassman, Ventura Youth Correctional Facility.

CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard, center, with Medal of Valor recipients Youth Correctional Counselor Sean Copeland, left, and Richard Glassman, Ventura Youth Correctional Facility.

YCCs Copeland and Glassman were involved in a serious staff assault on March 10, 2014, during which multiple youth attacked Glassman. Glassman, who had gone to retrieve a phone from an office so a youth could call his mother, was struck on the side of his head by a youth demanding that he give up his keys. He refused, telling the offender, “You’ll have to kill me because you’re not getting them.”

Glassman never released his grip on the keys, despite several youth joining in the attack. Copeland, without hesitation or regard to his own safety, jumped in to quell the attack and save Glassman, who had been rendered unconscious.

Both counselors displayed great courage in the face of great danger, and it was later discovered that the attackers had planned to use Glassman’s keys to open a room and attack another youth.

Both counselors also showed great humility when talking about the attack, saying that such brave actions are just part of the job.

“We’re very proud of Richard and Sean,” said Mark Blaser, Superintendent at VYCF. “We’ve always considered ourselves a family. So our guy running into a dayroom when the other guy is in trouble – that’s one brother helping another out. He didn’t even blink.”

“When I told Sean about him receiving the medal, he looked at me like, ‘Why? My brother was in trouble. I’m going in there. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?’”

Copeland said he remembers every second of the attack, which by the time it ended involved eight inmates attacking the YCCs. He remembers clearly seeing Glassman unconscious, and knowing that he had only moments to save his life.

“The split-second that I saw his face, I thought, if that was me I would want somebody to do the same thing,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I just went ahead and it started happening.”

Copeland’s wife, Arena, said that even if her husband won’t take credit for his heroism, she is certainly proud of his bravery.

“I’m extremely proud of Sean,” she said. “I’m not surprised, because of his giving spirit and wanting to always help others, and always putting other people first.”

Glassman said the youth who attacked him first told him they liked him, and that the attack was “just business.” But Glassman knew that as a sworn peace officer he had a duty to protect the institution, no matter the cost, and he wasn’t giving up those keys.

“There was no way evil was going to win over good,” he said. “Each one of those keys represented to me values and beliefs – the values of integrity, perseverance and honesty, and the belief in good over evil. That’s all I could think about – they’re not taking my values and beliefs.”

Staff members from state prisons, parole offices and various divisions received awards at the First Baptist Church of Elk Grove Community Center.

In addition to the Medal of Valor, CDCR awarded Distinguished Service Medals, Unit Citations and Bronze, Silver and Gold Corrections Stars.

The ceremony is also the time for CDCR to present its Employee Recognition Program, honoring staff who went above and beyond in areas such as parole, healthcare, juvenile justice and rehabilitation. Joanne Vice said she was honored to be named Correctional Officer of the Year, adding that she works with many people who are equally deserving of that distinction.

“I love my co-workers – the camaraderie, the family aspect of it,” she said of working at California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, where she has been employed her entire 19 years of correctional service. “It is a great place to work.”

Vice is not only an outstanding peace officer, she is also a dedicated volunteer, raising funds for children with cancer, victims of human trafficking, Special Olympics and veterans, and is also a member of CCC’s Peer Support Program, providing support for employees in need.

Salinas Valley State Prison Warden William Muniz was at Medal of Valor to support Correctional Officer Antonio Virrueta, who saved the life of an inmate who had been injured in an attack.

Virrueta came to the aid of an inmate who had been stabbed with an inmate-manufactured weapon, jumping in to apply direct pressure to his wounds. Muniz remembered how, like so many other brave staff members before him, Virrueta was humble about his bravery, downplaying how important his actions were.

That, Muniz said, is indicative of CDCR staff in general.

“They do acts of heroism all the time,” he said. “It’s just what they do.”

A complete list of 2015 award winners follows:

Medal of Valor
The Medal of Valor is CDCR’s highest award, earned by employees distinguishing themselves by conspicuous bravery or heroism above and beyond the normal demands of correctional service. The employee shall display great courage in the face of immediate life-threatening peril and with full knowledge of the risk involved. The act should show professional judgment and not jeopardize operations or the lives of others.

Youth Correctional Counselors Sean Copeland and Richard Glassman, Ventura Youth Correctional Facility

Correctional Sergeant Benny Diaz, Pleasant Valley State Prison (Coalinga)

Gold Star Medal
The Corrections Star (Gold) medal is the department’s second-highest award for heroic deeds under extraordinary circumstances. The employee shall display courage in the face of immediate peril in acting to save the life of another person.

Correctional Officers Dominic Reed and Benjamin Ledesma, North Kern State Prison (Delano)

Silver Star Medal
The Corrections Star (Silver) medal is the department’s third-highest award for acts of bravery under extraordinary or unusual circumstances. The employee shall display courage in the face of potential peril while saving or attempting to save the life of another person or distinguish himself/herself by performing in stressful situations with exceptional tactics or judgment.

Parole Agent I Ben Somera and Parole Agent II Jason Bradshaw, California Parolee Apprehension Team (San Diego)

Correctional Officer James Paterson, California Rehabilitation Center (Norco)

Correctional Capt. Richard Smith and Correctional Lt. Thelma Wooldridge, Ironwood State Prison (Blythe)

Correctional Officer Antonio Virrueta, Salinas Valley State Prison (Soledad)

Correctional Officer Alex Pizarro, California State Prison-Sacramento

Correctional Officer Ricardo Luna, Centinela State Prison (Imperial)

Bronze Star Medal
The Corrections Star (Bronze) is the department’s award for saving a life without placing oneself in peril. The employee shall have used proper training and tactics in a professional manner to save, or clearly contribute to saving, the life of another person.

Correctional Officer Jose Perez, California Men’s Colony (San Luis Obispo)

Correctional Sgt. Cristobal Gonzalez Jr. and Correctional Officers Eric Martinez, Jaime Garcia, Olga Martinez and Sergio Gonzalez, Avenal State Prison

Correctional Officers Carlos Chavez, Veronica Rendon and Maria Beltran, Valley State Prison (Chowchilla)

Correctional Officer and K-9 Handler Ernest Trujillo, Calipatria State Prison

Correctional Sgt. Jack Dougery and Correctional Officer Steve Arana, San Quentin State Prison

Correctional Officer John Atkins, California Correctional Center (Susanville)

Correctional Officers John Farnetti and Chad Painter, Deuel Vocational Institution (Tracy)

Correctional Sgt. Owen Spencer, Pelican Bay State Prison (Crescent City)

Correctional Officer Walter Moorer, California Medical Facility (Vacaville)

Deric Johnson, Senior Estimator of Building Construction and Project Manager, Facility Planning, Construction and Management

Registered Nurses Zachary Eaton and James Wenker, California Correctional Center (Susanville)

Correctional Officer Todd Gillis, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison-Corcoran

Correctional Sgt. Humberto Vera, Correctional Officer Daniel Bjorn and Registered Nurses Martha Jimenez and Dianna Seta, Correctional Training Facility (Soledad)

Chief Deputy Warden Joel Martinez and Case Records Technician Leon Mize, Sierra Conservation Center (Jamestown)

Correctional Officer Thomas Mireles, California Training Facility (Soledad)

Correctional Sgt. Lorenzo Abella, Correctional Officers Sergio Martinez and Shaneel Prasad, and Registered Nurse Michelle Morin, California State Prison-Solano (Vacaville)

Correctional Officers Jorge Limon and Aristeo Punzal, Centinela State Prison

Youth Correctional Officers Gustavo Camberos and Sue Perales, N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility (Stockton)

Parole Agent I Jose Montiel, Redwood City Parole Unit

Unit Citation
The Unit Citation is for great courage displayed by a departmental unit in the face of immediate life-threatening circumstances.

Correctional Lt. Dean Shankland, Correctional Sgt. Daniel Lightfield, Correctional Sgt. Kenneth Blessing and Correctional Officers Christopher Drake, Desmond Browne, Joel DeFazio, Josef Johnson, James Lewis, Kenneth Heal, Mark Churray, Matthew Orpesa, Paul Bettencourt and Tyrome Johnson, all from California State Prison-Sacramento.

Distinguished Service Medal
The Distinguished Service Medal is for an employee’s exemplary work conduct with the department for a period of months or years, or involvement in a specific assignment of unusual benefit to the department.

Loran E. Sheley, Research Program Specialist III, and Denise M. Allen, Research Manager, Office of Research

Correctional Sgts. Guyler Tulp and Daisy Tamayo, Avenal State Prison

Robbi Geyser, Recreation Therapist, Mule Creek State Prison (Ione)

Youth Correctional Counselor Deborah Brady, Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp

Juan Guajarado, Treatment Team Supervisor, and Michael Trotter, Casework Specialist, O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility (Stockton)

Marty Giannini, Treatment Team Supervisor, N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility (Stockton)

Thomas Foster, Parole Agent, Antelope Valley GPS Unit

Tariq Aquil, Community Resource Manager, Correctional Training Facility (Soledad)

Employee Recognition

Administrator of the Year: Loran E. Sheley, Research Program Specialist III, and Denise M. Allen, Research Manager III, Office of Research.

Health Care Services Professional of the Year: Amy Eargle, Ph.D.

Division of Juvenile Justice Professional of the Year: Youth Correctional Counselor Deborah Brady, Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp

Division of Rehabilitative Programs Professional of the Year: Matika Rawls, Associate Governmental Program Analyst, Office of Correctional Education

Division of Parole Operations Professional of the Year: Denise LeBard, Parole Administrator I

Correctional Officer of the Year: Correctional Officer Joanne Vice, California Correctional Center (Susanville)

Correctional Supervisor of the Year: Correctional Lt. Matt DeForest, High Desert State Prison (Susanville)

Executive of the Year: Vincent S. Cullen, Assistant Deputy Director, Division of Adult Institutions, Operations.