Exclusive: Former prison guard says inmates in alleged cellmate murder were never supposed to be housed together

According to the Delaware County District Attorney’s office, Shad Boccella strangled and killed Eliott Funkhouser in a shared prison cell at Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility on April 22, 2022. Media reports said Boccella was wearing Funkhouser’s shoes as he was escorted out of the cell after Funkhouser’s dead body was discovered.

But a correctional officer who was working that cell block the day the two men were put together says Funkhouser’s death should never have happened, that both of the men were too dangerous to be in a cell with another inmate, yet those concerns were ignored — with deadly consequences.

“On first shift I got a phone call from the Classification [Officer] Mike Moore stating that he was sending the guy [Funkhouser] from Unit 8 to be a ‘House alone/Rec alone’ on [Unit] 10. My exact words to him were, ‘I have no room on 10A because I’m full,’” former Correctional Officer Norman Passarella told Broad + Liberty in an exclusive interview.

“House alone/Rec alone” is a classification meaning an inmate is considered so dangerous he or she must essentially be kept in a cell by themselves, and segregated from the rest of the general population as much as possible, even during recreation periods.

Sending a House alone/Rec alone like Funkhouser to a block that had no empty cells that Thursday night was obviously bound to cause problems. But the risk was about to double.

Funkhouser, 54, was ultimately placed in a cell with Boccella, 25-years old at the time. According to Passarella, Boccella was also classified as a House alone/Rec alone.

“The sergeant on duty was Sergeant Fakolee,” Passarella continued. “He called Mike Moore and told him that we had no room on the unit. And Mike Moore says, ‘Well, I’ll change his [Funkhouser’s] classifications.’”

That was Thursday evening. Passarella was off Friday and Saturday, and then was out sick Sunday. 

“Monday I came back to report to my unit and I saw it on the chalkboard up in the control room 10A – 105,” a notice of an alleged murder, Passarella said. “And I’m like, “No, I tried to prevent this. I tried to do everything in my power to stop this.’ Well, nobody listened.”

Passarella was so disturbed by what happened, he authored his own incident report that Monday in an effort to get his version of events logged into the record.

Two other sources authenticated Passarella’s incident report. The sources have intimate knowledge of the prison’s day-to-day work environment. 

“This [incident report] is extremely damaging evidence that the jail didn’t follow procedure for inmates that are classified as ‘house alone/rec alone,’” the source told Broad + Liberty. The source is known to Broad + Liberty, but has been given anonymity because of fears of retaliation.

Passarella took the report to his lieutenant, who pointed him to a deputy warden, who then directed him to the facility’s internal investigators.

“I was questioned by the jail investigators about it and — without [the investigators] having my paperwork — I said everything, word for word, what took place: that shouldn’t have been done, shouldn’t have happened. Nobody listens to anybody there, and this is what happens.” Passarella said.

“When I came in on that Monday and I saw the caution tape on the door [of the cell] and I saw his name on the board and [Boccella] was moved to SMU [Special Management Unit], I literally felt like shit, excuse my French. I was so upset over it because I tried to prevent something and nobody listened,” Passarella said.

The account is explosive because it largely matches the allegations in a federal lawsuit filed last week by Funkhouser’s family.

“It is believed…that there existed instructions and/or warnings relative to Mr. Boccella, that he was not to be housed with fellow inmates, due to his predilection for violence,” the lawsuit says.

The county did not respond to requests for comment to this article, citing the pending litigation as a reason.

Funkhouser’s death was seismic not only for the brutality, but because it came just two weeks into the county government’s retaking full managerial control of the prison away from a private contractor, GEO Group.

At the time, the GWHCF was the last privately run prison in all of Pennsylvania.

Passarella says he started work for the facility in 2011, and that for many years, there was an ethos among the guards of taking care of one another like family. But he goes on to say that ethos feels like it barely exists now.

“We loved what we did. We had fun. When the county took over, they took stuff away from us,” Passarella said. “We would get mandated [overtime shifts]. We would call somebody in for — to do a split for four hours. They took that away from us.”

Passarella is referring to “split shifts” in which a guard could take a mandatory, eight-hour overtime shift and split it into two small bites of four hours. The first guard who was assigned the full mandatory shift would take the first four hours, and then another guard would pick up the second bit.

The loss of split shifts was a bitter pill for the correctional staff who had their employment carried over by the county when the management transfer happened.

The removal of the facility’s K-9 units was another loss that Passarella says deeply cut morale.

Funkhouser’s death in April was closely followed by two suicides at the GWHCF that June. The families of both suicide victims say they have lingering questions and resentments about how events unfolded — including both families saying they weren’t contacted until one or two days after the incident.

In all, the GWHCF would see five deaths in 2022, and would repeat that tally in 2023.

(Broad + Liberty’s tally of deaths attributable to the facility vary from the facility’s own reporting to entities like the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. More detail can be found in this report from February.)

Passarella was fired from the GWHCF in January of 2023 over a dispute about availability of sick time. He says no grudge is animating his coming forward about Funkhouser’s death, but rather a deep conviction that the death was absolutely preventable.

“When I found out that he was murdered, I literally had to go and talk to my lieutenant about it because I felt that I let the gentleman down and nobody listened to me,” he said. 

Passarella was moved to tears more than once when recounting the events of that month.

“I want justice to be served, and closure. Closure for all of it,” Passarella said.

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd@broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports@protonmail.com. @shepherdreports

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