Exclusive: ‘I believe I watched him die,’ says former inmate as murder charges filed against Missouri corrections officers

Five former corrections officers are facing a combination of assault, manslaughter and murder charges over the December 8 death of Othel Moore Jr., a former inmate at a maximum security prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, according to newly released indictments.

The officers were part of a Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), which are specially trained units designed to deal with violent prison situations, at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.

A former inmate at the correctional center tells CNN he witnessed officers create the violent circumstances that killed the 39-year-old Moore, whose 2023 death forms part of an especially deadly year in Missouri prisons.

The exterior of the Jefferson City Correctional Center is pictured in Jefferson City, Missouri. - CNN
The exterior of the Jefferson City Correctional Center is pictured in Jefferson City, Missouri. - CNN

“I never watched anybody die before,” Jordan Seller, 27, told CNN, as he explained the events leading to Moore’s death began with what was supposed to be a routine search of the cells on the maximum-security prison block he shared with Moore.

“They come in like a hundred deep, you know, and that’s barely an exaggeration, you know, they try to come in and pull everybody out as fast as they can, search cells fast as they can and get out,” Seller said. He and his cellmate had already been pulled out and put back in their cell when they noticed the commotion building around Moore’s cell, Seller says.

“The cell was surrounded by CO’s,” or corrections officers, Seller said and that Moore was pleading with them he had a medical lay-in and needed to be put in two pairs of handcuffs, essentially latched together with the outside rings on the wrist to ease tension on the shoulders being pulled back. Seller said they’re commonly used for bigger inmates or those who may have trouble putting their hands behind their backs.

Seller says the correctional officers refused to listen to Moore and began treating him as if he was non-compliant. The officers proceeded to pepper spray Moore, slam him to the ground and force him into a single pair of handcuffs, he says.

“He can’t see. He’s spitting out mace, he’s coughing, he can’t breathe and he’s telling them ‘I’m allergic to mace, you need to hurry up and get medical here,’” Seller said.

Seller says he was looking up at the commotion from his cell on the lower floor of the prison block before Moore was brought down the stairs closer to him in a “real aggressive” manner.

Jordan Seller speaks to CNN. - CNN
Jordan Seller speaks to CNN. - CNN

The correctional officers placed Moore in “some kind of chair-like contraption,” according to Seller, which the county prosecuting attorney has said was a restraint chair, sometimes used in corrections facilities. Seller says the prison guards began to place a spit mask on Moore, but Seller maintained he was only spitting out mace.

“Of course, he’s refusing this because there’s no reason for them to put a spit mask on,” said Seller, who also says he witnessed this a few feet from his cell door. “He don’t know what’s going on. He can’t see, you know, so they’re grabbing on him trying to put something on his head. He’s fighting it. Well, then they started shocking him with the shock glove.”

Seller then recounted what he believes were Moore’s final moments, when the officers pulled out what appeared to be “an all-black motorcycle helmet, you know, darkened mask, all that,” and put it on Moore’s head.

“Immediately he’s jumping, hopping, and you can hear him screaming, you know, ‘Help! I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, take it off. I can’t breathe. I’m, I’m allergic to mace. I need help.’ And then it gets worse and worse,” Seller said.

“He’s jumping up and down shaking. And, you know, slowly, his screams are getting weaker and weaker,” Seller said. “I believe I watched him die before they even took him out the wing,” he said.

“I watched the people that are supposed to be protecting me, kill somebody, literally killed them, you know? And that brought on such a fear, you know? The realization that these people can kill me and there’s nothing I can do about it,” said Seller.

Moore was declared dead that day.

What the indictment says

When the arrests were made Friday, Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson largely corroborated to CNN Seller’s eyewitness account of what happened to Moore, including the use of a “spit mask and padded helmet.”

During a contraband sweep of the prison, Moore “was pepper sprayed twice during the operation before being placed in a spit hood, leg wrap, and restraint chair and transferred to a separate housing unit, where he was left in the hood, wrap, and restraint chair for approximately thirty minutes,” the prosecutor said in a statement.

“Multiple witnesses heard Moore pleading with the corrections staff and telling them that he could not breathe” before he was transferred to the prison hospital wing and pronounced dead, Thompson said.

A statement of probable cause against the charged officers describing the incident said Moore “showed no aggression to any members of the CERT team during this process and was on video being compliant,” and that Moore “made no threats to anyone.”

The use of a “shock glove” on Moore, as Seller described to CNN, was not mentioned by the prosecutor.

Former corrections officers Justin Leggins, Jacob Case, Aaron Brown, Gregory Varner and Bryanne Bradshaw were all charged in this case.

Leggins and Case were charged with second-degree murder and second-degree assault, in part for “recklessly” causing physical injury to Moore by pepper-spraying him in the face, according to court documents.

Brown was charged with second-degree murder, and assault in the second degree, for “recklessly” causing serious physical injury to Moore by “placing a mask” over Moore’s face, which “inhibited” his ability to breathe, according to a joint felony complaint against the officers.

Varner was charged with second-degree murder and assault in the second degree for “recklessly” causing “serious physical injury” to Moore by leaving him “in a position which caused his asphyxiation,” the complaint said.

Bradshaw was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the second degree and is accused of negligently causing Moore’s death by leaving him in a position that caused “asphyxiation,” the complaint alleges.

CNN has attempted to identify attorneys for each of the former officers arrested but has not been able to make contact.

Leggins, Case and Brown had their charges read to them during arraignments in court Monday, Thompson told CNN. A judge refused to allow bond for those three defendants, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Varner is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, Thompson told CNN.

Bradshaw has been released from jail after paying bond, and has a court hearing scheduled for the end of July, Thompson told CNN on Monday.

Othel Moore appears in an undated photo. - From lawsuit
Othel Moore appears in an undated photo. - From lawsuit

In response to the murder charges, the Missouri Department of Corrections said in a statement it “has discontinued use of the restraint system in which Moore was held.” Additionally, the statement said the department has begun using body-worn cameras in maximum-security prisons, starting with Jefferson City Correctional Center, to “bolster both security and accountability.”

It also said 10 people involved in the incident have been terminated following internal and independent law enforcement investigations, including the five officers charged.

The corrections department previously confirmed that the warden of the prison at the time of Moore’s killing, Doris Falkenrath, was no longer with the department. Falkenrath was not among those arrested and not listed on the indictments filed Friday.

Following the indictment, Othel Moore’s family filed a federal civil lawsuit against the officers, the prison warden at the time of the killing and the previous director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, alleging, in part, that Moore is dead “because of the actions, inactions, conscious disregard, willful and wanton, and depraved behavior” of the then corrections officers.

The suit also alleges the “attack” was not an isolated incident but the “manifestation of a barbarous pattern and practice, fostered by the highest-ranking members of the Missouri Department of Corrections.”

A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections told CNN the department won’t comment on pending litigation.

Attorneys Andrew M. Stroth and Steven Hart are among those representing Moore’s family.

In remarks to the press Friday following the announcement of the charges, Stroth said, “These charges are historic. These charges are unprecedented. When you hear about what happened, witnesses saw what happened, video evidence shows what happened. It’s George Floyd 3.0 in a prison. Othel Moore, like George Floyd, was beaten. Othel was actually pepper sprayed, they put a spit mask on his face, they put him in the prone position face down. They shocked him with shock gloves. The entire time before his death was screaming. ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Stroth told CNN: “I’ve reviewed hundreds of police cases, prison cases, this is one of the most egregious cases I have ever seen.”

‘We want transparency and accountability’

It’s also part of a worsening trend in the Missouri prison system.

From 2012 to 2019, the average number of deaths, which includes natural deaths, hovered around 99 per year, according to state data obtained by CNN through a Missouri Sunshine Law request. From 2020 to 2023, the average number of deaths then climbed to 128 per year, a near 30 percent jump.

There were fewer people incarcerated in Missouri in 2023 than at any time since at least 2012, according to state data. However, it was the prison system’s deadliest year over that time period.

Last year saw 137 prison deaths, with Othel Moore among them.

Lori Curry, founder and executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Missouri Prison Reform, told CNN her group is regularly in touch with around 900 inmates, or “residents of prisons,” as Curry described them, to use more humanizing language.

Her organization also tracks deaths reported in prisons and based on the data they provided to CNN, “what (the state) refer to as natural deaths” was the most frequent listing as manner of death in their numbers over 2022 and 2023.

However, Curry cast doubt on the state listings and attributes the rise in the number of deaths in recent years to “declining healthcare, an increase in drugs and overdoses, and an increase of staffing shortages,” she told CNN.

She said her advocacy group quickly learned about the disturbing circumstances around Moore’s killing.

“People in prisons notified us about the situation immediately,” Curry said.

She also believes “the Department of Corrections needs to be more forthcoming” about the information around this and that if lawyers, family and others were not so vocal about the case it would not have stayed in the spotlight.

Curry founded Missouri Prison Reform in 2019 after launching an anonymous Twitter account where she reported stories relayed to her by inmates. Many years and many stories later, “I’ve been appalled at the things that have gone on in [Missouri] prisons,” she told CNN.

“We want transparency and accountability from our department of corrections,” she added.

Seller, who has seen the dynamic between guards and inmates up close, says he wants the same thing.

“I see police officers out here wearing body cameras all the time, you know, and it’s required for their stops, arrests, all that. And I believe that’s the only solution for the way that inmates are getting treated is that the CO’s are required to wear body cameras,” Seller told CNN.

“You can’t trust the people that are supposed to protect you,” he said. “This has become such a big pandemic. I mean, I’m calling it a pandemic, you know, and it’s severe and it’s a big problem.”

Seller was serving a six-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree rape in 2018, according to court records. State registry records also show the victim in that case was a minor. Seller did his time at a few prisons before being released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in March.

“I did a lot of good for myself in there, a lot of soul searching,” Seller said.

He told CNN his reason for coming forward was simple:

“It’s something that’s wrong, that needs to be addressed. Something needs to change,” he said.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com