NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 

Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

New York State
Department of Correctional Services
Glenn S. Goord, Commissioner

Office of Public Information
[518] 457-8182

For immediate release:

Noon on Thursday, June 10, 2004

Prison system awards Medal of Honor posthumously to employee killed in action in Iraq;
awards 7 Medals of Merit for valor in 2003, honors 35 who died in line of duty since 1861

A prison employee killed in action in Iraq was posthumously awarded the Department of Correctional Service’s Medal of Honor today in a ceremony that also saw seven employees earn Medals of Merit for bravery and valor during the past year, said Commissioner Glenn S. Goord.

During the 4 p.m. ceremony at the Department’s Albany Training Academy, a 35th name was added to the Memorial Roll of prison employees who have died in the line of duty since 1861 as the result of inmate actions.

(Note: Full citations and Commissioner's remarks are posted on website. Photos of presentations, etc. will posted at 7 p.m.)

The posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Inspector General Investigator Michael L. Williams was made to his aunt and uncle, Larry and Fredricka McAlister, and his cousin, James Robbins Jr., who is also a Correction Officer at the Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County.

Commissioner Goord also presented Medals of Merit to:

  • Great Meadow Correction Officer Donald M. Ballard, who came upon a car accident and extricated its unconscious operator seconds before the burning car burst into flames. The motorist later died of his injuries.
  • Mid-State Correction Officers David A. Buckbee and Lawrence M. Ciaccia, who rescued an elderly couple and a child from a burning building – only to reenter the inferno after learning that two people were still unaccounted for. They were able to save a fourth person before the flames and smoke forced their retreat.
  • Attica Correction Officer Andrew D. Dannheim, who rescued his wheelchair-bound, elderly neighbor from a fast-moving fire that gutted the latter’s home in less than a half-hour.
  • Clinton ASAT Assistant Paul J. O’Connell, who was chaperoning a youth group in Nicaragua when he rescued two girls caught in a treacherous riptide. ASAT is the acronym for the Department’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment program.
  • Albion Correction Officer Michael Rybczynski, who came to the assistance of a Buffalo police officer in restraining a drug-crazed felon engaged in a “life or death” struggle with the officer.
  • Coxsackie Correction Officer Michael F. Venne, who swam 100 feet in the icy waters of the Saranac River into a raging whirlpool in an unsuccessful attempt to save a drowning fisherman.

In a message to the award recipients, Governor George E. Pataki said, “I want to extend my congratulations and express my pride and thanks for the bravery shown by the eight employees who will be honored today.” He added that it is also “fitting and appropriate that the Department takes this opportunity to honor the memory of the 35 employees who have given their lives in the performance of their duties to the people of New York State.”

Commissioner Goord said, “In sacrificing his life for all Americans, Investigator Williams displayed the professionalism and bravery we have come to expect and respect among our military personnel, especially among our neighbors serving as ‘citizen soldiers.’ Our Medal of Merit recipients personify what it means to be a ‘good neighbor’ in the communities that invited our facilities into their midst: they risked their lives in an attempt to save those of others.”

Speaking for the Senate, Dale M. Volker of Erie County, chairman of the Committee on Codes, said, “We live in difficult and trying times, yet our men and women continue to make professional and personal sacrifices to protect and preserve our communities and our country. I have for the past 32 years had the pleasure of meeting with Correction Officers and their families from throughout our great state. They are good, honest and hardworking people who have the monumental task of protecting us from some of the most destructive and dangerous human beings on earth. The job is fraught with dangers on a daily basis, as is indicated by the names of those who have fallen and are remembered in the memorial room of the Academy and through the memorial in front of it. To those who have passed, I extend my deepest sympathies to their families and loved ones. To those who we our honoring today for their heroic acts, I commend you, thank you, and appreciate what you have done to honor your profession, your person, and your state.”

Speaking for the Assembly, Jeffrion L. Aubry of Queens, chairman of the Committee on Correction, said, “I congratulate the honorees for their unwavering courage in nobly risking their lives in order to preserve the life of another, and for their devotion to the performance of their law enforcement and civic duties.”

The 35th name added to the Memorial Roll was that of Clinton Prison Guard Dennis O’Brien, 57, who, according to newspaper accounts at the time, “met a horrible death” on Jan. 11, 1904. Dispatched to a local train station in search of two escapees, he rounded a motionless rail car in the yard, stepped in front of an oncoming train and was killed instantly. Described as “a man of many good qualities,” he was “one of the most popular officers” at the Dannemora prison where he had worked for nearly 15 years. He left a wife and seven children.

The deceased employees now total 27 uniformed personnel and eight civilians; the total includes three women. The total comes from Attica (12), Auburn and Clinton (seven each), Sing Sing (three) and one each from Elmira, Fishkill, Eastern, Green Haven and Great Meadow prisons, plus one employee who worked in New York City in the parole division when it was part of the Department of Correctional Services.

Among them are the 11 who died in the 1971 riot at Attica. Three others held the title of Principal Keeper (now Deputy Superintendent for Security) at Auburn when they were killed by inmates between 1927-30. Another was a Sing Sing Officer killed in 1916 by an escaping death row inmate who was recaptured and executed eight days later. Still another was a hospital attendant killed in 1906 by a criminally insane inmate at Matteawan State Hospital (now Fishkill prison) only four days before she was to leave to attend nursing school. Another was Green Haven Correction Officer Donna Payant, murdered by an inmate in 1981. CO Payant remains the only female Officer in New York to die in the line of duty.

The ceremony took place at the permanent memorial park dedicated in 2000 on the 50-acre Academy campus on New Scotland Road. The centerpiece of the memorial park in front of the Academy is an Empire blue granite memorial that stands 12 feet high, six feet wide, 18 inches deep. It weighs 19,711 pounds.

No names are inscribed on the memorial stone. Instead, each honoree’s name, identifying details and cause of death are enshrined on plaques located in the memorial room of the adjoining Academy. Thirty-two plaques were enshrined when the memorial room was inaugurated in 2000. Plaques were added in 2001 for Clinton shop foreman Joseph Weitekamp, killed in 1922, and in 2003 for Auburn Keeper Harry A. Casler, slain in 1877. A 35th plaque was added today in honor of Mr. O’Brien. If the Department confirms the line of duty death of any other employees caused by inmate actions, their names will be added to the Memorial Roll as well.