Condemned serial killer Roberto Arguelles' attempt to take his own life may actually delay the end he apparently is so anxious to meet: his death.
Prosecutors say Arguelles, in trying to hang himself Wednesday in his cell at the Utah State Prison, may have opened the door to the very thing he's been fighting since confessing two years ago to the 1992 sex slayings of four women - extended appeals over his competency to proceed with his execution.Arguelles, 36, remained in critical condition Friday night, on a respirator and in and out of consciousness, according to prison officials and a spokesman at LDS Hospital. It will not be known for some time whether he suffered any long-term effects from oxygen deprivation.
Prison spokesman Jack Ford said the Department of Corrections has undertaken an investigation to determine how Arguelles - who was on 24-hour suicide watch - obtained the laundry bag he used to hang himself from the bars. "He wasn't supposed to have it," Ford said. "Somebody apparently slipped it to him."
Arguelles' situation closely parallels that of self-proclaimed prophet and condemned murderer Ron Lafferty, who hanged himself while awaiting trial on charges that he murdered his sister-in-law and her infant daughter in 1984. Lafferty suffered brain damage that provided fodder for his attorneys seeking a new trial.
"No question, it extended the litigation in that case," said Assistant Attorney General Michael Wims, who helped prosecute Lafferty. "It interrupted things."
Ultimately - after two trials and a dozen years of hearings - Lafferty was re-sentenced to death and is awaiting execution. His attorneys continue to argue that Lafferty suffered significant brain damage in the suicide attempt and that it would be wrong to execute him. The courts have disagreed.
However, Wims said courts will consider whether an inmate is able to adequately communicate with his attorneys. "Courts have allowed an appeal to be interrupted," he said.
Arguelles has repeatedly said he does not want to fight his four death sentences and wants to be executed for the string of kid-nappings and murders he committed while on parole in 1992. He has demanded a firing squad and has the court's permission to face his executioners without a hood.
Ironically, he may have given his court-appointed lawyer an avenue to pursue an appeal against his expressed wishes.
Whether Arguelles had suffered brain damage was the first question asked by lawyer Ed Brass when the lawyer was contacted by a reporter in Alaska and told of the suicide attempt. Brass has been appointed by the Supreme Court to represent Arguelles on appeal, against the inmate's wishes.
Tom Brunker, the assistant attorney general handling the appeal, conceded there is "some potential" for delays if Arguelles' competency becomes an issue.
"But at this stage, it's just too early to say," Brunker said.
Arguelles was placed on suicide watch last week after he cut his wrists with a razor. The wounds were relatively superficial, said Ford.
He was placed in a strip cell, clad only in his underwear, and under observation by a video camera. He was to be checked every 15 minutes.
Sometime shortly after 1 p.m., Arguelles slipped underneath the camera, out of its visual range, and looped the laundry bag through the door of his cell and around his neck. He then leaned heavily on the ligature, cutting the flow of oxygen and blood to his brain.
Ford said that when guards noticed Arguelles had stepped out of the camera's range, they ordered him via a speaker in his cell to step forward. When he didn't, they turned up the volume on a cell microphone "and heard raspy breathing." At that point, guards and medical personnel were dispatched to the cell.
It took several minutes for the team to gain access, since the inmate had used wadded-up paper towels to jam the sliding door's runners.
Arguelles was serving a nine-year-to-life sentence for molesting a 9-year-old boy and his sister, 11, in 1996 when he spontaneously confessed to the four kidnappings and slayings.
He led lawmen to the remains of Tuesday Roberts, 15, Lisa Martinez, 16, and Stephanie Blundell, 13.
Arguelles said he also killed Margo Bond, 42, the janitor at a junior high school where he had been stalking young girls.