Seven years ago, Nate Cain looked on as a trio of guards savagely beat an inmate who had hopped a train to escape a work detail at Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy, where Cain was deputy warden.

After convict David Breaux was recaptured, the abuse started in a transport car, with Cain in the front passenger seat. A subsequent probe found bits of Breaux’s skin and hair on the partition in the vehicle.

After the car drove through the prison gates, the lead investigator found, Nate Cain watched as officers threw Breaux, his hands shackled behind him, face-down onto the asphalt. Later they rammed his head into a cell-block door, leaving a “significant” amount of blood.

The investigator, Col. Eric Sivula, wrote that Cain didn’t just fail to stop the violence: When it was over, he told the involved officers they had done a “good job.”

The report mostly squares with Breaux’s own account, though the ex-convict, in an interview with The Advocate, remembers Cain being a participant in some of the beating, not just a bystander.

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For most correctional supervisors, the incident might have been a career-ender, and it might have led to criminal charges against Cain as well as the men who carried out the assault. In fact, the investigator thought it would, according to a letter Cain later sent to his boss, complaining of Sivula’s aggressive methods.

But Cain — whose father is Burl Cain, then warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and a formidable force in the state’s huge correctional apparatus — didn’t suffer much of a professional setback. Though Nate Cain was written up for aggravated malfeasance and suspended for two weeks without pay, the famous Angola warden’s son became a warden himself three years later, landing the top job at Avoyelles Correctional Center.

Nate Cain was in charge of that prison, in Cottonport, from September 2012 until several weeks ago, when he was put on leave amid an internal investigation. Correctional officials haven’t said precisely what they’re looking at in the current probe, only that it involves “personnel issues.”

Seeking financial documents

The new investigation into Nate Cain comes in the wake of a series of public records requests from The Advocate seeking various documents related to the Avoyelles prison. Among the records the newspaper is seeking are receipts to back up tens of thousands of dollars in purchases made with credit cards billed to state taxpayers, plus ledgers accounting for money raised through concessions that finance inmate clubs.

Nate Cain’s wife, Tonia, who until recently was the prison’s business manager, also has been placed on leave. Corrections officials will not say whether the Cains’ leaves are paid or unpaid.

Neither Cain has responded to multiple messages left by The Advocate.

Cain’s father, who retired in January, was often seen as the most powerful man in the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. The department was then and still is led by Jimmy LeBlanc, whom the senior Cain has described as his “best friend.” LeBlanc’s second-in-command is Seth Smith, Nate Cain’s brother-in-law.

Nate Cain’s discipline in the 2009 incident was meted out by Robert Henderson, then the warden of Phelps Correctional Center and a subordinate of LeBlanc’s. The punishment had to be approved by regional warden Steve Rader. Both Rader and Henderson have since retired.

It’s unclear whether the incident was ever reported to law enforcement. An official with the Beauregard Parish District Attorney’s Office said that agency had no record of a referral. The Beauregard Parish Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, could not provide an answer Friday as to whether the case had been brought to that office’s attention. Neither could the FBI.

Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said that under policies in place in 2009, the prison warden would be in charge of investigating allegations of improper use of force. In addition, the regulations say the warden “shall notify other authorities as appropriate.”

“Because this incident happened seven years ago and people involved in the disciplinary process regarding this incident are now retired, current staff is unable to determine whether it was referred to an outside agency for review,” Laborde said in an email.

Henderson, who would have been responsible for reporting the incident to law enforcement, did not return multiple messages. Rader, his former boss, could not be reached.

A call to mom

Breaux, who lives in Sulphur and works at a car dealership, was well into a 15-year sentence at Phelps for aggravated arson when, he says, he simply walked off a job site one day in 2009 and hopped a freight train to Texas.

It was sort of a lark, in his telling.

“I wanted to do something that ain’t never been did but one time in history — somebody escaped from the department of corrections on a train,” Breaux said. “Ain’t but one time in recorded history somebody did that. So I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna be the second one,’ and I did that.”

His escape set off a furious chase, in which several correctional officers were hurt in an accident.

Breaux said he took the train across the state line to Mauriceville, Texas, called his mom with the help of a stranger there and told her he planned to hop a train back to the prison.

Breaux said correctional officers were furious when he rode back into DeQuincy — the small Calcasieu Parish town that was home to Phelps Correctional Center — atop a boxcar. They roughed him up repeatedly over the next hour, he told The Advocate, slamming his head against the car’s partition and then into a pipe outside the prison.

He still seems astonished at the severity of the beating, though he said he has suffered no permanent physical damage from it.

He claims Nate Cain was among his tormentors, although Sivula’s report faults Cain — the highest-ranking officer at the scene — only for failing to control the situation, which was especially volatile because of the injuries officers had suffered in the earlier crash.

That accident “added to the already elevated emotions of the Phelps staff responding to and managing the apprehension efforts,” the report said. “There are no statements or testimony that Deputy Warden Cain took steps, gave orders or instructions or took any action to insure that staff remained composed. … To the contrary, there is testimony that immediately after inmate Breaux was in the cell block and everyone was exiting that area, Deputy Warden Cain told the officers that they had done a ‘good job’ and that he enjoyed working with them.”

Cain told Sivula he had not noticed the beating going on in the car, or afterward, because he had been making phone calls. Sivula clearly found the claim dubious, noting in his report that Cain was seated less than 18 inches from the screen into which Breaux’s head was repeatedly bashed.

Cain also told Sivula he couldn’t tell whether Breaux’s face had been injured during his transport because he hadn’t looked at it beforehand. And he told the investigator that when Breaux was thrown face-first onto the asphalt, it was because he was being uncooperative, not because officers were rough with him.

An implausible story?

Sivula’s report seems to find those claims implausible, and Cain’s subsequent letter of complaint to Jeff Travis, then chief of operations for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, makes plain that the investigator didn’t think Cain was telling the truth.

“He tried to coerce me into changing my story by telling me that a grand jury would never believe my story and that because of my name, this case would probably end up in federal court,” Cain wrote, adding that Sivula’s “use of profanity with a deputy warden seems extremely unprofessional and disrespectful.”

Sivula, now retired, declined to be interviewed by The Advocate.

The Breaux beating has similarities to the 2010 beating of Angola inmate Roy McLaughlin, who, like Breaux, had escaped and who said he was beaten after his recapture. That case was investigated by the FBI, and three former correctional officers have pleaded guilty either to taking part in the beating or else lying about it.

Breaux said he sent letters to the FBI’s branch offices in Lake Charles and Baton Rouge but never heard from the bureau.

Three years after the beating, in January 2012, Nate Cain was transferred to Avoyelles Correctional Center, a few months before state officials announced they were closing Phelps and laying off most of the prison’s 269 employees.

Less than six months after Cain arrived at his new post, Warden Lynn Cooper announced his retirement, and Cain was made acting warden. Three months later, he got the job on a permanent basis.

Among Cain’s subordinates at Avoyelles is Randon Harrington, one of the three correctional officers accused of carrying out the 2009 beating of Breaux. Harrington, then a sergeant, is now a major.

The other two men implicated in the incident are Jessie Bellamy, who now works as a captain at Angola, and Brandon Fruge, who was laid off when Phelps was closed in 2012.

All three men were suspended without pay in the incident, Harrington and Fruge for 20 days and Bellamy for 14 days. None of the three appealed their discipline to the Civil Service Commission. Neither did Cain.

Fruge declined to comment on the incident. Efforts to reach Harrington and Bellamy were unsuccessful.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.