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In Mask, An Echo From the Dark Ages

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page C01

Sometimes an image arrests us.

It halts us mid-word, mid-chew, mid-just-about-to-do-something-else, and presents a fixed psychic requirement: This is a picture of a man in a mask, and you recognize right away that you have to go deeper, know more.

Consider the photograph of 26-year-old Esteban Carpio, an alleged cop killer, at his arraignment hearing Monday in a Providence, R.I., courtroom. Look past his eyes, dark circles in a slit of cut and swollen tissue, injuries the Rhode Island Department of Corrections says he sustained after falling during an escape attempt and resisting arrest. Do not dwell on the attendant drama: his mother, Yvonne Carpio, overwrought, crying police brutality and being led from the courtroom. Do not dwell on whom you believe, or even if you care.

The iron mask used to restrict slaves, circa 1807, bears similarites to one worn by a murder suspect this week in Rhode Island. (Library Of Congress)

Instead wrap your mind around the polyurethane mask with air holes at the nose, chin and mouth, secured around his ears with adjustable elastic -- the "spit shield," "biter mask," or "protection mask." It can have several names.

But consider the device.

It takes a few moments for your mind to self-Google it, bypassing more benign markers for darker frames of reference: Hannibal Lecter, "The Man in the Iron Mask," faceless things, monsters from the id.

"It does look kind of Jason-y," says Loretta Ahrens, an office manager for Ripp Restraints, the mask's Orange City, Fla., manufacturer, in a reference to the serial killer from the "Friday the 13th" horror films. The mask -- which Ripp officially calls a protection mask -- is a stand-in, because what is behind the mask can be far worse.

Consider the questions: Which came first, a person so bad we had to invent the inimical devices to restrain him, or an object so repellent we had to invent a person inhuman enough to fill it out?

Does an alleged cop killer fit that bill? Which bill?

If the mask is dug up centuries from now, what will anthropologists say about our artifacts of restraint? A spokesman for the Providence Police Department wouldn't comment on the Carpio case, but in a statement yesterday, the department announced that a joint review will be conducted by the FBI, the Rhode Island State Police and the Providence Police of what happened to Carpio while in police custody.

Carpio is accused of killing Providence Police Detective James L. Allen on April 17. Allen was questioning Carpio at police headquarters about a stabbing that happened a week earlier. Carpio, police say, grabbed Allen's gun, shot him and jumped from the third-story window. Officers then chased him down the street and apprehended him.

He showed up in court the next day wearing the mask.

Joy Fox, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, says their department has used the mask only about "10 times in 10 years." The sheriff's department and corrections department jointly decided to put the mask on Carpio, she says, because his face was bleeding and "oozing" and he could possibly try to spit on officers. "There were concerns he would become combative," Fox says, and the department decided to take "maximum precautions and place him in the spit shield."

Mavis Dezulovich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. marshal's office, which transports defendants to and from D.C. Superior Court, says marshals are not directed to use that type of mask. "Everybody has seen them and is aware they exist," she says. "If they felt they had to use something like that, they could, but it is not standard issue."

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