One Year Later: CDCR’s highest honor bestowed on 8 local prison staff

Earlier this year, as part of the National Crime Victims' Rights Ceremony at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison's (CVSP) Wardens Lawn on April 10, special guest speaker and Ironwood State Prison's (ISP) Public Information Officer (PIO) Kelli Madsen shared her first-hand harrowing and heartfelt experiences at the tragic Oct. 1, 2017, Las Vegas concert shooting. (Archived file photo by Uriel Avendano/Palo Verde Valley Times)

At nearly the one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern United States history, eight employees from Ironwood State Prison (ISP) and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) were awarded the highest honor bestowed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for their bravery at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival last year in Las Vegas.

The 33rd Annual Medal of Valor Ceremony on Sept. 14 included eight other recipients from CDCR facilities elsewhere in the state who also had attended the concert.

In the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting, 58 concertgoers were killed and 851 others were injured. Due to the heroic efforts of Blythe’s local prison workers, lives were saved that might have been lost, and the concert crowd received additional protection beyond what Las Vegas safety personnel could provide during the surprise attack.

The Medal of Valor, according CDCR criteria, is “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.”

“Today, we honor heroes who have been placed in situations that call for action that is above and beyond the normal demands of duty,” said acting CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz at the award presentation. “While facing danger or adversity, many of these men and women have demonstrated split-second decision making, bravery and integrity.”

ISP staff who received the honor, and the reasons given at the ceremony for their selection, included:

Kelli Madsen, Correctional Lieutenant and Stephanie Ortega, Registered Nurse

Madsen and Ortega were part of the group of CDCR employees when the gunfire erupted. Madsen was celebrating her days-old engagement. Using barricades as shelter, the group tried to move to safety. They came upon a severely wounded woman who was not breathing. Madsen performed mouth-to-mouth while Ortega took turns performing CPR, briefly bringing the woman back. They loaded the woman onto a table and helped carry her out as Ortega continued chest compressions. All the while, the shooter continued to fire into the area.

Christopher Pierce, Associate Warden

Pierce and his group of CDCR employees dived to the ground when the gunfire erupted. He and others shielded friends and family members. Between volleys of gunfire, he acted. Using his active-shooter training, he yelled “Go!” and got the group moving to safety. In part due to his training, the group made it to safety.

CVSP staff who received the honor, and the reasons given at the ceremony for their selection, included:

Albert Powers, Correctional Sergeant, and Cynthia Powers, Licensed Vocational Nurse

After shots first rang out, the Powers helped a wounded man and his girlfriend to safety. The Powers successfully shielded the pair from gunfire. The grateful couple later contacted the Powers to express their gratitude for saving their lives and attended the Medal of Valor ceremony. Albert also took turns with other CDCR staff in giving CPR to a fatally wounded woman.

Keith Ploesch, Correctional Officer, and Catherine Ploesch, Correctional Officer

The first round of gunfire found the Ploesches with a group that included their two adult daughters. With no regard for their own safety, the couple shielded their daughters and others with their own bodies. As the gunfire continued, they moved to safety.

Greg Caravas, Correctional Lieutenant

At first, Caravas thought he was hearing fireworks, but then he saw the muzzle flashes from the Mandalay Bay Hotel. With no concern for his own safety, he used his body to shield his wife and 16-year-old daughter. Coming into the concert earlier, Caravas had spotted a small exit near the medical tent. While staying between his family and the gunfire, he guided them to the exit and to safety.

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