Sunday, April 6, 2003

Widow mourns guard's murder

One extra kiss that seems like yesterday

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Peggy Vallandingham wistfully remembers early afternoon on Easter Sunday 1993.She and her husband, Robert "Bob" Vallandingham, had an early lunch. Then Bob, a corrections officer at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, had to leave for work.

Ten years after her husband was killed in the Lucasville riot, Peggy Vallandingham remains a frequent visitor to his gravesite.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
During Easter lunch, worry kept flickering across Bob's face.

Prisoners had been tense. Many didn't want the tuberculosis shots that were to be given the following day. Crowding had already ratcheted up stress, as inmates were forced to double up in cells designed for one person.

Bob kissed his wife of 21 years goodbye and walked into the garage. Then, he spontaneously ran back inside for one last kiss - something he never did.

It was the last time she ever saw him.

A riot broke out just a few hours later that April 11 and Bob Vallandingham was taken hostage. Inmates strangled him to death four days later. He was the only guard killed in the 11-day riot, which also left nine inmates dead.

That was a decade ago this Friday. Peggy, now 48, and her sister-in-law, Shirley Osborn, say it seems like yesterday. They refuse to call Friday an anniversary.

"An anniversary is something you celebrate," says Peggy, anger in her blue eyes.

Not that she doesn't want people to remember her husband. "It's important to remember him," says the pretty, petite woman. "He gave his life for his job."

He would have been 50 this year.

Bob Vallandingham, a cable lineman and hospital security guard, had always talked about working at the prison, but Peggy was opposed to it. Too dangerous, she told him.

But correction officer jobs paid well, and working as a cable lineman sometimes took him away from Peggy and their son, Robert Jr., overnight. Finally, she gave in, and Bob went to work at the Lucasville facility April 15, 1991.

"He loved it, he really liked going to work," she recalls.

On an unusually warm afternoon last week, Peggy and Shirley sit together in the kitchen of Peggy's Minford, Ohio, home. Sunlight reflects off a picture of Bob - one of the few they have - that lies nearby.

They talk about how difficult the last 10 years have been.

Memories, good and bad, stir up tears. Shirley at one point walks away to compose herself.

Family support has seen both through the roughest times. They rely on each other.

Right now they particularly miss Bob's parents, Wanda and Homer. The couple died in the late '90s, having seen the ringleaders in their son's killing sentenced to die. The elder Vallandinghams never let anyone forget their son's death.

Peggy remembers how, during the first days of the riot, she sat in a van across from the prison, not eating, not showering - just staring at the prison, wondering what was happening to her husband. Wondering if he was alive.

Their son Bobby, then 19 and stationed in California with the Navy, soon joined her in her vigil.

Prison officials promised that if officers' lives were ever in danger, the prison would be stormed.

"That never happened," she says. "I'm mad about that. I'm not saying it would be any easier to accept his death, but knowing they had tried to save him would be better than dying senselessly."

On April 21, Peggy watched on TV from home as the state reached an agreement with prisoners, ending the riot. She watched as one by one the five remaining hostages were released.

"I felt cheated," she says. "Not that I wanted them dead instead of Bob, but I wanted Bob to be alive, to be walking out with them."

Wondering why her husband was the only guard the inmates killed still eats away at her sometimes. By all accounts he was respected and well liked by inmates.

Peggy theorizes that inmates thought that killing a hometown boy - Bob Vallandingham grew up in Minford - would make a bigger impact. But she'll never really know.

Peggy still drives by the maximum-security prison regularly when going to Portsmouth, to shop, visit friends or to Greenlawn Cemetery, where her husband is buried. For years after the riot, she cried just seeing the prison when driving by.

Being home without her husband was so hard that, a few days after he died, she moved in with her brother. She never went back, eventually buying a new home.

Almost everything was put into storage. She still hasn't gone through it.

She's close to her grandchildren, 9-year-old Robert Bruce Vallandingham III and his 7-year-old sister, Morgan.

Peggy regrets that they'll never know their grandfather.

Peggy sued the state for wrongful death, eventually settling for $850,000. It wasn't really about money, it was about the state's negligence in running the prison system, she explains.

"Nothing will bring him back."

Peggy says the constant tears have subsided, but still come two or three times a week.

She's dating somebody, but still sometimes gets lonely for Bob. She says her son approves, but she knows she'll never remarry. She still wears the engagement band Bob bought her 30 years ago, now slipped on her right hand instead of the left one.

Peggy goes to the cemetery for comfort about a dozen times a month, sometimes bringing yellow roses, signifying the yellow ribbons many wore during the riots to show hope the hostages would all return safety. In addition to his name, the gravestone bears Peggy's name as well.

But there's still anger. Five inmates have been sentenced to die for their role in the riot, which - like all death cases - sparks controversy about use of the death penalty.

"They talk about it being cruel and unusual punishment," Peggy says. "What do you think we went through?"

They wait for the days those inmates will die.

"Their day is coming," Peggy says. "It might now be lethal injection, but they'll eventually have to face God. One way or another, I'll win."


Online exclusive:
In their own words: Inmates plan murders

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Widow mourns guard's murder
Key figures during the riot

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Widow mourns guard's murder
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