Sunday, August 14, 2011
The 1974 Carrasco Prison Siege Huntsville, Texas
Prison riots are a great movie topic and are the topics of several books. One of the most famous and most discussed among sociology scholars is that of the Attica Prison riot which involved 1,000 prisoners who held 33 staff hostage on September 21, 1971 the result of the riot was the deaths of 39 people: 29 prisoners, 10 correctional officers and civilian employees of the prison. The prisoners demands centered around improved conditions of which 28 were met. Despite the high death toll this riot is not the only prison riot worthy of notation.
In 1974, the Carrasco Prison Siege in the Walls Unit in Huntsville took place from July 24 to August 3, 1974, making it the longest prison standoff in United States prison history. There were several reasons why it did not make the headlines either state wide or nationally. The Carrasco prison siege was in competition with several other big news stories, including the Nixon Watergate investigation which would cause President Nixon to step down six days after the siege ended. There was also the trial of multi-murderer Elmer Wayne Henley of Houston who was on trial in San Antonio. Also in local news was the news that former Texas Gov. John Connelly was indicted on a bribery charge, later of which he was cleared. "I participated in the Carrasco Prison Siege for 11-1/2 days. It’s a compelling story and it has so many ups and downs..." Wayne Scott, a guard present during the 1974 siege.
When the one o’clock work bell sounded, a limping Heroin Kingpin Federico Gomez Carrasco (also known as “Fred” Carrasco), who was injured from being shot four times in a shootout with police, walked up a ramp to the third-story library carrying a .38 caliber handgun. (It is a point of debate as to the extent of the injury to Carrasco’s leg some claim his was faking the injury to gain access to the Huntsville Unit while others claim it to be a legitimate debilitation). Once inside Carrasco and forced several prisoners of the library/education center at gunpoint. Those who remained were 11 civil employees and 4 convicts.
The law enforcement personnel who initially arrested Carrasco was suspected to have personally committed at least 47 murders during his criminal career. In addition to these crimes his organization was also under suspect for the murders of dozens of other victims, mostly other gang members, in Laredo and San Antonio, Texas, and across other cities in Texas and the U.S.
Gomez Carrasco’s organization was at the time of his arrest based in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. During his siege of the city in an attempt to gain control of the regional control of drug trafficking in the area from the rival gang Reyes-Pruneda. The death toll ended with approximately 100 victims of the mass execution, included in the murderous rampage included over two dozen policemen. The most amazingly interesting aspect of this story is the fact that this man, Federico Gomez Carrasco, was arrested in Guadalajara, Mexico in September, 1972, with 213 pounds of heroin worth more than $100 million and a large arsenal of weapons, and then escaped in December of that same year by bribing authorities and escaping in a laundry truck.
Carrasco’s fellow accomplices, Ignacio Cuevas, 42, who was serving a 45-years and Rudolfo Dominguez, 27, serving 15 years, who were also armed, arrived shortly after. Once they were in the library they proceeded to barricade themselves in by blocking the doors and windows with file cabinets and their 15 now handcuffed terrified hostages, 11 of which were civilian employees. “There were no windows or exits, except for the double glass doors,” recalled Lt.Wayne Scott. “They had barricaded the doors with filing cabinets, and they would rotate hostages in to sit on the barricades.” Scott and another guard were making a return trip from escort of inmates to the lower yard for exercise when he heard shots fired from the lone door to the Walls Unit Education Building.
Scott and the fellow guard where shot upon by the now barricaded Carrasco and his two accomplishes. His college was shot in the foot but Scott narrowly missed being shot having only been hit though his shirt. "We were within 20 feet of the glass doors when two inmates jumped out and shot at us," Wayne recalled. Understanding the gravity of the situation returned to the yard and returned the prisoners to their cells, then informed the officers who were having dinner in the officer’s lounge to stay there out of harm’s way. Once all other people were secured he reported the situation to the Warden who was in his office at the time of the shooting.
This was the beginning of what would be an eleven day lock down of the facility were even the guards stayed switching off and on in 12hour shifts. During the standoff Carrasco tormented the hostages, threatening to shot them or blow up the building with a bomb made using instructional information from the library a chemistry set also from within the library and even possibly items gathered from various other sources within the prison as well as some contraband that was smuggled in with the guns in side several canned goods and a hallowed out ham provided by a a trusty at the prison after being threatened. Reporter Larry Cooper's July 27, 1974 Houston Chronicle news story quoted Carrasco as saying, "I've got plenty of ammunition and I'm ready to use it. I'm ready for anything."
Using the internal phone system Carrasco forced the hostages to make demands for him. They asked for such items as custom tailored suits, Nunn-Bush shoes, ties, cologne and toothbrushes for himself and his two companions. These merger demands were promptly met, which may have prompted Carrasco to continue making demands, testing the limits of his control and power in the situation. His demands also became more aggressive, when he asked for walkie-talkies and bullet-proof helmets he rejected the helmets, under the pretense that he felt they were toys and to make his point clear that he was serious and would not be made a fool he shot several rounds at one of the hostages a prison guard named Bob Heard who was 27 at the time of the siege. Heard who was Carrasco’s “first designated hostage to die”, as well as the negotiating officer for Carrasco at the time screamed into the phone, "Give them whatever they want, and at least we'll know we tried, that we didn't die cooped up hi here like a slaughterhouse—and that's what it will be.”
Hearing the fear in the voices of the captives Prison Chaplain Fr. Joseph O’Brien, for whom Carrasco worked, volunteered to serve a messenger. It may have been his hope to council the distraught prisoner. Maybe negotiate surrender by using their relationship to open lines of communication that were not being developed by the prison employees or FBI. Despite his best efforts Fr. O’Brien himself became yet another hostage.
As time pressed on and the hours became days and the days came to a week Carrasco’s resolve began to wane and his level of agitation became increasingly more evident. After it was discovered on a radio broadcast that an arrest warrant was issued for Carrasco’s wife for her suspected involvement in the attempted prison break. Carrasco rants that she had no idea what was happening, he did not even know where she was. Carrasco’s attorney, Rueben Montemayor, at the discovery of this new development, also presumably by the request of Carrasco became engaged in the negotiations Carrasco.
These negotiations and news caused more agitation to an already volatile environment. agitate was more than likely due to the loss of three hostages not by his own doing. One hostage was released after suffering a heart attack. Shortly after this incident a second woman faked a heart attack and was subsequently released but kept at the prison hospital to avoid detection of the lie and further aggravating Carrasco. Some of the hostages contemplated suicide using pills for headaches Steve Robertson had with him. None did however either out of fear of retaliation as Robinson expressed later in his book on the incident or maybe for person belief. The final act that may have compromised Carrasco’s hold on the hostages came when one of the hostage inmates, Henry Escamilla, jumped through glass door, escaping Carrasco’s control over him and compromising his control of the situation even further.
The erosion of Carrasco’s hold on the situation was beginning to become severely compromised especially with the last hostage escape. Escamilla’s actions, which compromised the barrier between himself and the guards outside his only exit, may have also fanned the flames of his anger and frustration, knowing that he was a lifer for his murder of a competing drug dealer as well as being suspect in suspected of killing dozens of people in Texas and Mexico he decided he had nothing left to lose. Carrasco made on final plea for that of an armored getaway car, a demand that met the approval of the then Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe. Soon after the approval the car was delivered into the prison courtyard. Carrasco claimed the car was needed because they were planning to flee to Cuba and appeal to Fidel Castro for aid in their cases.
The FBI and Texas Rangers also sensing Carrasco’s slowly eroding control of the situation began develop options to end the siege before more hostages were hurt or worse killed. Included in the considered options to end the standoff were among the ideas, blowing up the brick walls with plastic explosive or using rolling shields to move in sniper teams, both ideas were rejected however due to ascetics of the building as the risk to human life, especially since Carrasco made it clear he had no reservations in using hostages as human shields.
On the eleventh and final day of the standoff Carrasco allowed the hostages to call loved ones to “say goodbye”. This would later prove to be his final act of terrorizing his hostages. The women and Fr. O’Brien were selected to escort him in to his departure to Cuba. It is probable that his thinking was that these were the most easily managed of the hostages that he had. They would also provide the most effective insurance until he was safely driving away in his armored car.
Carrasco's largest obstacle to his escape this time was the library at the Walls Unit. The building which was a three story brick building housed the library on the top floor. Another problem was the only way to get out of the building was four connected ramps that required the prisoners to turn four separate times before reaching the exit. This spiraling hallway helped to kept guards from making a direct assault on him as well as prevented snipers from getting any clear shots from inside the building, but left him with the problem of seeing what lies around the corners preventing him from avoiding an ambush as he would attempt his escape. Furthermore the building wasn't a simple brick building; it was actually on the third floor of a large building in the open courtyard of the prison which offered no protection once he actually got out of the building.
As a method of escape Carrasco constructed a portable barrier using two chalk boards taped together and reinforced by books from the library to serve as buffers for bullets. The idea was to use the remaining nine hostages, who were not going to be making the journey with him, as an external shield to what some termed the “Trojan Taco”. He kept the four hostages and two accomplices in side of the protective chalk board “Trojan Horse” as referred to (in a more politically correct manner) by the guards involved in the situation and used the remaining nine further human barrier handcuffing them together around the outside of his mobile barricade. Carrasco had warned that if TDC officers tried anything, the inmates would shoot the women who were with them The idea was to roll the barricade out the doors and to the car was he would transfer his hostage’s two accomplices to the armored car and to freedom. The plan seemed simple and flawless.
While Carrasco was building his “Trojan Horse” the guards began to develop a plan of their own. The 13 men who were on duty at the time and charged to the duty of capturing the barricaded convicts had come up with a plan to alleviate the situation. The decision was made to try, with the aid of the Huntsville Fire Department, to use a high pressure hose on the convicts and the hostages to set them off guard possibly even push them off their feet in order to gain control over them without seriously harming their hostages. The Texas Department of Corrections Officers gather the fire hose which they intended to use to topple the men confined within the portable barrier hid in the corridor between the convicts and the door to leave around the corner from the line of sight of the prisoners. There they waited for the opportune time to turn on the hose and end the volatile situation once and for all.
Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong.
As Carrasco, Cuevas, Dominguez and the 15 hostages rounded the ramp, TDC employees, using fire hoses provided by the Huntsville Fire Department, blasted the device with high pressure hoses. To the delight of the TDC officers and the dismay of Carrasco and his crew the structure began to tip under the pressure. However just when they expected the board to tumbled the hose ruptured causing the Trojan Horse to right itself. This was the first of a series of misfortunes in a matter of minutes that caused the situation to go from bad to worse.
Seconds after this failure by the TDC succeeded effectively separating the outer hostages from the rest using the pressure from the high pressure water hoses. Unfortunately this also succeeds in making the situation worse. The convicts enraged at losing some of their shield and insurance for a safe escape sense the vulnerability and adapt by becoming violent and desperate. Gunshots rang out, the first coming from inside the structure then from the officers in response thinking they were being shot upon. The TDC had succeeded in pushing Carrasco over the edge and into the abyss of desperation that drove him to begin to execute his hostages.
9:30 p.m., shots rang out from inside the prison, the inmates began to execute the hostages. The officers begin to fire thinking that the gun shots they heard were directed at them. This reaction is an understandable thought considering the amount of time in which the original assault and the subsequent shootings take place. The officers were acting on adrenaline and training and nothing more.
At the moment the prison officials begin to discharge their firearms Carrasco knows he is not making it out alive and takes his own life. Dominguez overwhelmed by the actions of both the TDC and Carrasco shoots a second hostage in a panic before taking a bullet from one of the officers. The officer later reported that Dominquez has turned a pistol to him and had no choice but to shoot the man. The third accomplice Cueves being pinned by one of the now dead hostages lay motionless under and remains both uninjured and unable to fire his handgun or act in any other manner. He becomes the only surviving conspirator of the escape and is later brought into custody.
Fr. O’Brien’s prediction of the hostage situation came to fruition August 4, 1974. Carrasco died, “hiding behind the skirts of women and the robes of a priest” After 80 hours of negotiations, the coordination of several facilities and the actions of a desperate convict Carrasco and his two accomplices Cuevas and Dominguez, and the hostages involved in the conflict between them are all left in a small corridor filled with the smell of gunpowder residue, smoke and blood running down the incline sped by the water from the hoses that were the last hope of a peaceful resolution to the situation.
The aftermath of the situation revealed that Fr. Joseph O'Brien, the prison chaplain and the third hostage held inside the capsule, was seriously injured. The two other hostages held inside barricade, Yvonne Beseda, a 57 year old prison school teacher, and Judy Standley, a 43 year old librarian, two women had volunteered to accompany the convicts as hostages in the armored car, turned out to be nothing more than sacrificial lambs in the inner circle beside the desperate men. Their fates were not as fortunate as that of Fr. O’Brien, the two women were killed, most likely the victims of the convicts Carrasco and Dominguez.
Part of the ongoing trauma the hostages had to endure after the end of the siege was the continuous reliving of the incident during the investigations of the incident and the several “debriefings” they had to endure by those who were investigating the incident. The first reliving of the incident came from the state of Texas two weeks after the incident occurred and then the walker county grand jury. The later inquiry was to determine if Ignacio Cuevas should be charge with capital murder charges for his part in the attacks. He would be sentenced to death if charged and found guilty.
One survivor, Ronald W. Robinson, went on to wrote a book on the ordeal where they stated “I had symptoms of paranoia. The chief of these was fear- irrational, unreasonable fear…. Sleeplessness had affected us during our captivity, and this continued to be a major problem during our recovery. I remember many nights lying awake, tense and alert to all the night sounds. When a branch would fall from a tree I would jump up and check the doors and windows.” Finally Robinson resorted to tranquilizers to get the sleep he so desperately needed.
Robinson also purchased a gun; he was previously against unrestricted gun ownership for years but due to his paranoia changed his stance and purchased a gun after a late night drug shootout occurred on his usually quiet suburban street. Another issue arose in Robinson’s life, the trauma prevented him from returning to work due to the psychological trauma very similar to what by todays standard would be related to that of PTSD suffered by deployed troops in war. It took Robinson five months for him to feel ok with working in the prison again, prior to this he would do an evaluation project that allowed his to work outside the prison. He never returned to the building in which the incident occurred.
The trial of Ignacio Cuevas began in February 1975 in a Houston court. He was granted a change of venues from a walker court due to his inability to get a fair trial in Huntsville the site of the incident.
The first few weeks of the trial was strangled with numerous petty defense motions which survey nothing more than to prolong the trial process. Then the jury selection took several more weeks, more than like due to the extensive media coverage of the incident tainting the potential jurors biasness.
Robinson spent two days on the witness stand including being shot by Dominguez and viewing photos of his colleagues Standley and Beseda from the crime scene. These images brought him to tears.
The first vote produced a 10-2 decision based mostly on the fact that there was no solid proof that Cuevas actually fired the bullet that killed either Standly or Beseda. The second vote produced an 11-1 vote and finally on April 4th the jury produced a12-0 vote for the death sentence. This decision automatically was submitted for review of appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as is the case with all death sentence rulings.
Gov. Dolph Briscoe, TDC Director W. J. Estelle, and Warden H. H. Husbands went on to be ridiculed for the outcome of the 11½ day ordeal. The deaths of the hostages was thought to have been avoidable and went under review for their decisions made during they took heat over the outcome, but many in corrections believe it was a miracle that anyone survived.
Despite the loss of the events during those eleven and a half days to history the victims were not forgotten. Twenty-five years after the August 3, 1974 shootout, the newly-remodeled library was named the Beseda-Standley Building to honor the two women who'd been murdered.
Ignacio Cuevas, the surviving perpetrator, received the Texas Department of Corrections Death Row ID#526. Cuevas was received as a death row prisoner on May 30, 1975. Cuevas was held at the Ellis Unit, and he was executed on May 23, 1991. Cuevas's last meal request consisted of chicken dumplings, steamed rice, sliced bread, black-eyed peas, and iced tea. Cuevas's last words were "I’m going to a beautiful place. O.K., Warden, roll ‘em.". It took seventeen years and three trials before the surviving conspirator, Ignacio Cuevas, was executed for his part in the siege.