Zachary Titus. Credit: Maine Department of Corrections

Police say a fight over stolen cigarettes led to the strangulation death of an inmate at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in June 2018.

Maine State Prison inmate Zachary Titus, 39, was charged with murder last month in connection with the death of his cellmate Dana Bartlett, 28. Titus pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and the case is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in May 2020 ― three months before Titus is scheduled for release on his current prison sentence for theft.

A police affidavit filed Feb. 4 in Knox County Superior Court and made public last week sheds light on what allegedly led to Bartlett’s death after more than six months of silence surrounding the investigation.

Credit: Maine Department of Corrections photo

Two other inmates who shared a room with Titus and Bartlett at the minimum security facility in Warren told investigators that Titus and Bartlett got into an altercation on the afternoon of June 24. One of the men said he witnessed Titus put Bartlett in a “sleeper hold” and the other told police when he returned to the cell from a smoke break that Bartlett was “lifeless” on the floor and Titus was trying to wake him up, according to the affidavit.

Both of the cellmates said they left the room after the altercation broke out. When they returned to an unresponsive Bartlett, Titus allegedly said that “[Bartlett] just came at me and I choked him out,” according to the affidavit.

Video surveillance of the hallway where the cell was located showed the two other inmates leaving the room, according to a timeline included in the affidavit.

About five minutes later, Titus left the room and walked to the bathroom. When he left the bathroom, “a noticeable red-brown stain consistent with the color of blood” could be seen on his shirt, the affidavit said.

A few minutes later, surveillance allegedly showed Titus wearing a different shirt and looking at his fingernails.

Titus then went to get a corrections officer, insisting that Bartlett needed help. The corrections officer administered CPR and Narcan, not knowing why Bartlett was unresponsive. His attempts to revive Bartlett, and later attempts by emergency medical crews, were unsuccessful.

Bartlett was found with a large scratch under his chin, the affidavit stated. An autopsy conducted the morning after his death concluded that the cause of death was strangulation and that the manner of death was a homicide. Police did not publicly state that Bartlett’s death was being investigated as a homicide until January.

Bartlett’s DNA was found on Titus’ shirt and wristwatch. No DNA from Bartlett was found on the two other cellmates, who were strip searched along with Titus after Bartlett was found dead.

The fight that led to Bartlett’s death was not an isolated incident. According to the affidavit, Bartlett and Titus had fought a couple days prior to the death. In a recorded phone call from Bartlett on June 23 made to an unidentified person, Bartlett stated that he had been in “two fights in two days.”

In a recorded phone call made earlier in the day that Bartlett died, Titus told an unidentified person that he and Bartlett had gotten into a fight a couple of days earlier and that Bartlett “punched him in the mouth,” according to the affidavit.

Leading up to his death, Bartlett was reportedly terrified of his cellmates, according to former inmates who spoke to the Bangor Daily News. They said Bartlett asked a guard multiple times to move him to another cell in the hours before he died. The guard allegedly refused to move him.

Maine Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, who was Maine State Prison warden at the time of Bartlett’s death, said an internal investigation by the Department of Corrections and an investigation by the Maine State Police found “no indication” that Bartlett asked to be removed from his cell because of safety concerns. An internal review concluded that prison policies and procedures were followed by corrections staff, he said.

In interviews after Bartlett’s death, Titus denied getting into a fight with Bartlett and said another cellmate “choked him out,” according to the affidavit.

After a second round of DNA from Titus was submitted in August, results from the Maine State Police Crime Lab in December confirmed that a mixture of his DNA and Bartlett’s DNA was found on his wrist watch and on his shirt.

A grand jury indicted Titus in January and he was arrested on Jan. 23 at the Maine State Prison, where he has been held in a close custody pod since Bartlett’s death.

At the time of his arrest, Maine State Police detective Joshua Birmingham wrote in the affidavit that Titus asked if a murder charge “still [comes] with the mandatory minimum,” and “I was curious: why did it take six months for them to rule it was a homicide?”

Titus, formerly of Thomaston, is serving a two-year sentence for theft, according to Maine Department of Corrections records. His scheduled release date on the theft conviction in August 2020. Titus’ current sentence stems from a November 2017 theft from the Thomaston Walmart, according to court records.