Salute photo

This photo, released by West Virginia state officials earlier this month, depicts more than 30 correctional officers giving the Nazi salute. The photo was released by the state with faces blurred, and state officials have refused to release an unblurred photo.

CHARLESTON — Cadets of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class No. 18 performed Nazi salutes as part of their training dating back to the early weeks of boot camp, state investigators found.

The probe began after a photo emerged earlier this month of the entire class of jail guards raising the salute, a mirror of the gesture used to pay homage to German leader Adolf Hitler before and during World War II.

Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday that all 34 guards and three academy staff members would be fired, and four instructors suspended without pay.

One of the cadets deemed the salute to be a sign of respect for their instructor, Karrie Byrd, according to the executive summary of the state investigation. Several class members adopted it, while others recognized its “historical implications” and refused to go along with it.

Byrd told investigators she had no idea of the historical or racial implications of the gesture, and thought it was simply a greeting. Several others disputed this in separate interviews.

When two other instructors told Byrd and the class of the history tied to the gesture — the report does not say what history was specified, but the Nazis systematically slaughtered more than 6 million Jews and others during the Holocaust — one cadet stood up and spoke in defense of the Nazi salute.

“Look at me I am black and I am doing it,” he said, according to the report.

Eighteen other cadets identified this person as the originator of the salute within the training class. No cadets suggested anyone else started the trend. Fifteen said they could not remember who started it.

State officials did not immediately respond to a request for the full report, which would presumably contain the names of the class members, other photographs of the class found on social media depicting homages to Hitler, and further details. Earlier this month, Justice and a cabinet secretary would not commit to releasing the full report.

When state officials first commented on the photo, they released a version of it with the faces of the people blurred. The state has refused to release an unblurred photo and public records requests for relevant documents, citing privacy concerns.

Investigators determined the Nazi salute was repeatedly performed with Byrd’s knowledge, and she “encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated” it. She also overruled those who tried to stymie the practice.

This all culminated in the graduating class photo the recruits took, which sparked widespread media attention once unearthed.

According to investigators, Byrd took the photo and directed its subjects. She had to take it several times because 10 cadets reportedly did not make the gesture until she told them to do so. These cadets told investigators they held up a closed fist in lieu of an open hand so as to comply but not risk failing out of the class.

After it was taken, the photo was sent to a secretary, who asked Byrd what everyone in the picture is doing.

“That’s why they do that, because I’m a hardass like Hitler,” Byrd said to a secretary who saw the photo, according to the state investigation.

The secretary and two other instructors individually discussed the photo with a Capt. Daniels-Watts (her first name was not given in the report) at the academy, who said “Well that is going to bite us in the ass.”

Daniels-Watts, by her own admission, found the picture to be horrible, but never addressed Byrd, removed the pictures from packets issued to cadets, or reported the situation to her supervisor.

“Do I resign now, or what?” Daniels-Watts mused when the meeting for academy staff was called regarding the picture. “I saw the picture and did nothing.”

During the course of the investigation, composed of about 75 interviews with Corrections and Rehabilitation employees, investigators found pictures on social media of Byrd, surrounded by class members all holding their fingers above their lip in a caricature of Hitler’s iconic mustache.

The entirety of the executive summary does not specifically mention Judaism, the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler or the white supremacy movement that the salute has become linked with. Investigators concluded that while the photograph was “highly offensive and egregious in appearance,” it did not reveal any overt motivation or intent that it was a discriminatory act toward any racial, religious or ethnic group.

“Rather, contributing factors included poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure and fear of reprisal,” the investigation states.

The firings come on the heels of several acts of mass violence toward Jewish people and amid fears of heightened anti-Semitism in America. Over the weekend, five Jews were stabbed when a man entered the home of a New York rabbi and allegedly engaged in a machete rampage.

Earlier this month, six people were killed when two shooters opened fire in a kosher market in New Jersey (the dead include the two shooters, one police officer and three people at the market).

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.