There's all kinds of health hazards (with prison tattoos). —Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke
SALT LAKE CITY — A man accused of killing a 16-year-old girl and dumping her body in Morgan County may be in more trouble with the law.
And the proof may be the writing on the wall — or in this case, Eric Millerberg's neck.
Millerberg, 36, is charged with child abuse homicide in connection with the death of Alexis Rasmussen whom he allegedly injected with heroin and methamphetamine during a drug binge that also included Millerberg's estranged wife, Dea Millerberg.
In April, Dea Millerberg — who has filed for divorce from Eric Millerberg — was the state's key witness in testifying against her husband.
It has now come to the attention of corrections officials and attorneys that the tattoo on Millerberg's neck that previously said "Dea" has been altered to now read "Death." It wasn't clear to officials on Tuesday when the tattoo was modified.
But the change clearly happened while he was in custody.
Eric Millerberg had 27 documented tattoos when he was admitted to the Utah State Prison in October of 2011 on a parole violation, said Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke.
The tattoo across his neck at that time was "Dea."
Gehrke said prison officials were aware of the possible tattoo change and were "investigating." But he admitted it was mostly a matter of looking at before and after pictures, gathering reports from officers who work the closest with Millerberg and filing them.
It was unknown Tuesday whether there was any intended message behind the tattoo alteration. Millerberg's next court date is scheduled for June 26.
Although it's widely known that inmates are able to get tattoos covertly while in prison, Gehrke said acquiring a tattoo while at the Utah State Prison is against the rules and could result in punishment.
"They'll face some sort of disciplinary action. They may have their privilege level reduced," he said of offenders.
Some of the privileges inmates can lose may include the amount of time they can be out of their cells, the types of items they are allowed to purchase and possess, and visitation hours.
In 2002, an inmate at the Utah State Prison, a white supremacist, had time added to his sentence after an interview with a local television station caught the attention of corrections officials who noticed a new tattoo on the inmate.
One of Utah's most notoriously inked inmates is Curtis Allgier, who is accused of killing 60-year-old corrections officer Stephen Anderson inside a medical exam room at University Hospital's orthopaedic center in 2007.
In a 2001 booking photo, Allgier had no visible tattoos on his face, a striking contrast to his 2007 booking mug which shows his face completely covered with tattoos. It's unclear where he got those tattoos. Part of his ongoing court battles have been over whether to have his tattoos covered during trial. A judge ruled against it.
Inmates typically administer tattoos in prison using a pen or a sharp object, some source of ink or an ink substitute and whatever makeshift motor they can find, such as from a cassette player.
The biggest problem with prison tattoos is the risk of disease.
"If a person goes out and gets a tattoo at a regular shop, there's a reasonable expectation of cleanliness," Gehrke said. "There's all kinds of health hazards (with prison tattoos)."
While prison tattoos are typically associated with white supremacists, Gehrke said they are mostly used by inmates to show gang affiliation and are not exclusive to white gangs.
From May 29, 2011, to May 29, 2012, Gehrke said the prison handed out disciplinary action 594 times for tattoo-related offenses. However, he noted that did not mean 594 inmates got tattoos over the past year. The number of offenses were related to anyone connected in helping someone get new ink, Gehrke said.
A single tattoo could result in several disciplinary actions for the people who administered the tattoo, received the tattoo, facilitated the meeting and helped with the supplies.