Sad duty: Gomm mourned as Stillwater prison safety questions linger

Law enforcement officers salute mourners of Officer Joseph Gomm.
Law enforcement officers salute Gloria Gomm, mother of Officer Joseph Gomm, at his funeral at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills, Minn. on Thursday, July 26, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 2:55 p.m. | Posted 10:45 a.m.

Killed in the line of duty, Stillwater prison officer Joseph Gomm was remembered Thursday at his funeral as a compassionate, funny and dedicated guardian. Hundreds of police and correctional officers from across Minnesota paid their respects as the investigation into his death continued.

Gomm, 45, had just marked 16 years as a correctional officer when an inmate allegedly attacked and killed him at the prison last week.

Joseph Gomm
Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm, who was killed in an attack by an inmate at the Stillwater state prison on July 18, 2018.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections

Gomm's funeral began Thursday morning at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills. Traditional bagpipe music accompanied Gomm's casket as it entered the sanctuary, with the posting of colors nearby. Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach sat among the mourners.

"We know that Joe was dedicated in this life," said Rev. Marty Shanahan, the Stillwater prison chaplain. "We pray that the gates of paradise are now open to him. May the angels guide him."

Police officers outside of North Heights Lutheran Church.
Police officers stand by their motorcycles outside of North Heights Lutheran Church before the funeral for Officer Joseph Gomm in Arden Hills, Minn. on Thursday, July 26, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

He recalled Gomm rescuing an owl trapped in a prison building, and kestrels he helped rescue and get to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center for care — signs of his compassion.

"Joe taught me to listen deeply," Shanahan said. "Joe was a man of incredible authenticity, profound integrity and immense compassion."

He said he could imagine what Gomm would be saying right now but joked, "unfortunately, I can't repeat it."

Citizens lined the route as the funeral procession made its way to Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville.

A mourner carries a white rose and a program from the funeral.
A mourner carries a blue-tinted rose and a program from the funeral of Officer Joseph Gomm at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills, Minn. on Thursday, July 26, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Gomm was guarding prisoners in an industry building last Wednesday when authorities say a man serving a 29-year sentence for murder attacked him with a weapon. It was the first time in Minnesota history that a corrections officer was killed in the line of duty.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the incident, said Gomm died of blunt force trauma.

In a news conference last week, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said he did not know Gomm personally but heard many accolades from his co-workers.

"He was a standup, professional corrections officer, well respected by his peers. He would be an example to others, and that's how I would describe him," Roy said.

Law enforcement officers walk through the parking lot.
Law enforcement officers walk through the parking lot during the funeral for Officer Joseph Gomm at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills, Minn. on Thursday, July 26, 2018
Evan Frost | MPR News

Joe Miller did know him. He said Gomm helped train him when he was a rookie prison guard 13 years ago.

"I just remember him taking me in and I always knew of him as a consummate professional who was always sticking his neck out for our safety, too," he recalled.

The fatal attack on Gomm was the last straw for Miller. He's among at least three Minnesota corrections officers who've quit their jobs since the incident.

Miller said the vocational work area where Gomm was killed is dangerous; there are too few guards, many blind spots, and convicts have easy access to tools that can be used as weapons. Corrections Department leaders, he added, did not heed warnings from staff.

"I had to leave, because I disagree with everything being done there, and it's just making it less and less safe. And we have the definitive proof now: a man has died."

Mourners gather on a hill next to North Heights Lutheran Church.
Mourners gather on a hill next to North Heights Lutheran Church after the funeral of Officer Joseph Gomm.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Roy said the suspect, Edward Muhammad Johnson, had spent around a third of his 15 years in prison in the segregation unit, mostly as punishment for fighting. But Roy said Johnson had been behaving himself for the past two years, so he was allowed the privilege of working in prison industry.

The commissioner said the attack on Gomm will color the future in terms of how the prison system manages security, particularly in industrial areas.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he hopes to file charges in the next week or two.

As Gomm's colleagues mourned, the Stillwater prison remained on lockdown. And visiting hours at Minnesota's other prisons were cancelled Thursday while Gomm was laid to rest.

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