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Arizona father anxious for answers in son’s prison death

LISTEN: Inmate's father speaks out

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A Peoria father is anxiously awaiting some answers from the Arizona Department of Corrections. His son died last month from injuries suffered while he was incarcerated in a state prison in Kingman.

The father is trying to find out exactly what happened.

While at a restaurant in Scottsdale, Keith Early said his 23-year-old son Neil was a great guy.

“He was athletic, he always had a smile on his face, and had a great sense of humor,” said Early. “When he would walk in the room, there was this big smile. Everybody loved him. He didn’t have any enemies.”

Keith said his son was quite the golfer.

“He had a beautiful swing. He played on the Junior PGA for a year or two,” the father said. “I took him to golf courses that I couldn’t get past their security gates, but he’s playing in two-day tournaments!”

Keith said Neil was a great student at Boulder Creek High School in Anthem, but the boy fell victim to something that, according to the family, is overly abundant at the school: drugs.

“Oxycontin was the thing to do,” Keith said. “That’s what they do. It’s an opiate and is very addictive. When that dried up, the only other opiate up there was the cheap heroin.”

Neil and others started committing burglaries, and sold the stuff they stole to support their habit. Eventually, they got caught, Neil’s father said.

Neil’s first arrest was during his senior year in high school. He was allowed to graduate before serving his sentence.

Keith said he remembers Neil’s graduation day very well.

“He got out of high school on Thursday, and went into prison on Friday,” Keith said.

Neil served one year for that crime and was released, according to his father. But Neil went right back to hishold habits, and was later caught stealing video games and selling them to buy drugs. He entered a plea agreement, which required him to serve five years in prison, and he was sent north to Kingman.

He had been there for three years. Just before Christmas, Keith and his family, including his wife and 14-year-old son Tyler, went to visit Neil. Keith said Neil had been working out and looked great.

“We didn’t recognize him when he walked in! He looked that good,” the father said.

Keith said Neil talked about taking up golf again when he got out of prison, and seemed to have a better outlook on life.

But then, in January, while Keith was out of town on business, the Earlys’ phone in Peoria rang in the middle of the night.

“My wife got a call about 2 or 3 in the morning from the prison, stating that (Neil) was sent to the hospital,” Keith said.

Neil had suffered head injuries. He was originally diagnosed at a Kingman hospital, but was airlifted 45 minutes later to a medical facility in Las Vegas.

He died with his family at his side a few days later.

The family was frustrated in its attempts to get any information about what happened. The hospital told him that it couldn’t say anything because of HIPAA laws. The Arizona Department of Corrections said it couldn’t comment while conducting an investigation.

Keith then discovered some information while going through medical records.

“The prison, according to the records that I’ve been able to get, classified it as a ‘slip and fall,'” said Keith.

He said he didn’t believe it.

“I’ve heard so many different stories, but they all come down to a debt [that Neil owed]. It was an unknown amount. And when you can’t pay your debt [in prison], you get beaten,” said Keith.

The father said he has heard those “stories” through a website he established to get information about what happened to Neil.

Prior to interviewing the father, KTAR requested an interview with the Department of Corrections. The DOC said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

But in fact, the DOC had already commented. On Feb. 13, the DOC issued a press release saying that it is now treating the death as a suspicious homicide that started with a “physical altercation” with at least one inmate, and that it is continuing to investigate.

The department has also asked the Mohave County Attorney’s Office to prosecute whomever is responsible. The DOC also told KTAR that it has kept the Earlys updated on its latest findings and will continue to do so.

The father said he was aware of the press release, but like the e-mails that he’s received from others, he feels that, until he hears a definite explanation, all of the information is just “hearsay.” He said that he and his family want a definitive answer.

“We want to know what happened,” said Keith. “It would be nice if someone came to justice for it, but that is an unknown down the line. But first is finding out what happened.”

Until that happens, Keith said it feels like it’s just a waiting game.