From one o’clock on the afternoon of July 24, 1974, until shortly before ten o’clock the night of August 3, eleven days later, one of the longest hostage-taking sieges in the history of the United States took place in Texas’s Huntsville State Prison. The ringleader, Federico (Fred) Gomez Carrasco, the former boss of the largest drug-running operation in south Texas, was serving life for assault with intent to commit murder on a police officer. Using his connections to smuggle guns and ammunition into the prison, and employing the aid of two other inmates, he took eleven prison workers and four inmates hostage in the prison library. Demanding bulletproof helmets and vests, he planned to use the hostages as shields for his escape.
Negotiations began immediately with prison warden H. H. Husbands and W. J. Estelle Jr., Director of the Texas Department of Corrections. The Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the FBI arrived to assist as the media descended on Huntsville. When one of the hostages suggested a moving structure of chalkboards padded with law books to absorb bullets, Carrasco agreed to the plan. The captors entered their escape pod with four hostages and secured eight others to the moving barricade. While the target was en route to an armored car, Estelle had his team blast it with fire hoses. In a violent end to the standoff, Carrasco committed suicide, one of his two accomplices was killed (the other later executed), and two hostages were killed by their captors.
One of the longest hostage-taking sieges in the history of the United States took place in Texas’s Huntsville State Prison in the summer of 1974. Federico Carrasco, a former drug boss, and two other inmates used smuggled guns to take eleven civilian prison workers hostage in the prison library. They planned to escape using the hostages as shields in a moving barricade, but W. J. Estelle Jr., Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, had his team blast the barricade with water hoses. In a violent end to the standoff, Carrasco committed suicide, one of his two accomplices was killed (the other later executed), and two hostages were murdered by their captors.
About the Author
William T. Harper spent fourteen years with the Philadelphia Inquirer as reporter, writer, and editor. He has written numerous articles for American Heritage and Focus. For this story he utilized eighty-eight real-time audio tapes of negotiations and interviewed many of the surviving participants. He lives in Bryan, Texas.
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Eleven Days in Hell
The 1974 Carrasco Prison Siege at Huntsville, Texas
By William T. Harper
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2004 William T. Harper
All rights reserved.
July 24, 1974 Day One
"Stop right there or I'll kill you!" —Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker
Ronald (Ron) Wayne Robinson kept looking at his watch, anxious to get home for his daughter Sheryle's eleventh birthday party that night. Aline V. House was kicking herself for forgetting to bring her blood-pressure medication to work. Bobby G. Heard kept looking through the doorway to see if his relief was on his way up to take his place as the only guard in the prison library. Ann Fleming was thinking about her eighty-year-old mother in a Nashville, Tennessee, nursing home. Novella M. Pollard was worried about getting her rent check in the mail on time. Elizabeth Yvonne (Von) Beseda's concern was the alteration of her daughter's University of Texas cheerleader uniform. All in all, it was just a routine day in Huntsville, Texas.
That routine ended abruptly with the roar a .357 caliber Ruger Speed Six, blue Magnum revolver made as it was fired in the confined quarters of the third-floor library of the State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, where perhaps the loudest previous noise was a whispered "shhhh." Federico (Fred) Gomez Carrasco, fired that first round as the back-to-work whistle blew at precisely one o'clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 24, 1974. The longest civilian-hostage-taking siege in the history of the American penal system had begun.
"Stop right there or I'll kill you!" Carrasco shouted in English, with a strong Latino accent, at Novella Pollard, forty-six-year-old principal in the prison school. The angry threat had just the opposite of the desired effect. Pollard, who was conducting a typing class for twenty inmates, bolted into the adjoining library office, where she dove under a desk—a maneuver that had been practiced many times in her public schoolrooms during the previous decades with its fears of nuclear missile strikes.
"Hit the floor," she commanded the four other women already in the room. "There's a man out there with a gun."
Bertha Mae (Bert) Davis, Ann Fleming, Aline House, who was using the office telephone, and librarian Linda G. Woodman looked around in a moment of bewilderment until they too took cover beneath work tables. Woodman's view of the situation was limited by the fact that she was not wearing her glasses. Being near-sighted, she had set them aside for routine close-up work. House crouched up to see what was going on. Her first thought was that the man with the gun, whom she did not recognize, was a lone prisoner who had gone berserk and was attempting a breakout.
Fleming and Woodman had more practical thoughts. They pushed a six by five-foot wooden filing cabinet against the office door to block its entrance—a useless gesture as it turned out because they were surrounded by glass partitions. Education and Recreation Director Glennon D. Johnson was trapped in the complex with four other civilian employees—librarian Julia (Judy) C. Standley, teachers Von Beseda, Anthony J. (Jack) Branch, Jr., and Ron Robinson.
In the library's classroom, about thirty inmate students of the Windham School District—the prison's educational facility—were taking a standardized math test. In the library itself, twenty-five to thirty more inmates were using the facilities, casually reading or seeking information they hoped would lead to their retrials or releases. Another twenty were taking Pollard's typing lessons. When Von Beseda saw the inmate brandishing a pistol, her first thought was an incredulous, "Where'd he get that darned gun?"
Jack Branch, the only Black among the teachers present, thought "it was a joke" when inmate Rudolfo (Rudy) S. Dominguez came into the classroom waving a pistol, hammer cocked. But when the inmate students started moving to the rear of the library area as ordered, Branch decided, "They know guns better than I do so I figured I'd better move, too."
Johnson, the ranking TDC employee in the complex said, "You don't think about (these things) in normal hours. My first feeling was disbelief." After looking down the menacing gun barrels, Glennon immediately surmised the worst possible scenario, "I was pretty sure we were all going to die by five o'clock that afternoon."
The lone prison guard assigned to the complex, Bobby Heard, beat a hasty retreat into the crawl space above the false ceiling.
As the four women (Davis, House, Fleming, and Woodman) hiding in the office furtively peeked out from under the tables and through a glass partition separating their hideaway from the classroom, they saw another inmate in prison whites, also brandishing a gun. This was Ignacio Cuevas. And then they, too, saw Rudy Dominguez. Neither Carrasco, who previously came to the library only on occasion, nor Dominguez were known to any of the civilian staff, although Pollard remembered that Carrasco "had sat in that library across from me while I was teaching my class." But generally, that pair was not the type that frequented libraries and classrooms. On the other hand, Pollard "knew Cuevas quite well. I taught him when he first came to prison. He was in art class," where his primitive work gained some admiring approval. According to the Houston Post, "some of his paintings have sold for as much as one-hundred dollars."
All three of them had been sitting there in the library for fifteen minutes, casually scanning daily newspapers. Then, as the back-to-work whistle blew, Carrasco fired his initial shot. Cuevas and Dominguez put down their newspapers and moved to the center's entrance. Cuevas unraveled a length of chain from underneath his pants leg and wrapped it around the entry door handles, thereby locking everyone either in or out. Carrasco sat down on a chair in the library, raised his pants leg, and peeled yards of tape from around his legs. Stuck to the tape were hundreds of rounds of .357 and .38 caliber ammunition. He threw some of his ballistic arsenal to Cuevas and Dominguez, which they crammed in their pockets. "You," Carrasco barked pointing his pistol at the rattled teacher Robinson, "get in that office and get those women out of there."
Robinson, staring dumb-founded down the barrel of a menacing revolver, decided to do as he was told. Pounding on the blockaded office door, he pleaded with the women to give themselves up. "You have to come out," he cried. "He knows you're in here. You have to come out."
"We're not coming out," yelled Woodman. Carrasco bellowed at Robinson as he aimed his gun at Standley and Beseda. "Tell them if they don't come out I'm going to shoot these two women."
The threat brought the ladies out of their hiding place. Pollard and Woodman pushed the filing cabinet away, and the four came into the library seeing that it had filled with inmates from all over the building's third floor. House recalled Carrasco fired three shots through the thick plate glass doors at two unarmed prison guards who were hurrying up the entrance ramp, and assumed his leadership role immediately.
One of the officers headed up the entrance ramp for the classroom door was twenty-one-year-old Sgt. Bruce Noviskie, a criminology major at Huntsville's nearby Sam Houston State University. He suffered a superficial flesh wound to his left foot. Another officer, Lt. Wayne Scott, twenty-three, received several scratches from splintered glass and concrete chips that were fragmented off a wall by the bullets. Scott, and two more unarmed Correctional Officers who were following behind him, quickly ran back down the ramp. That was too slow for Noviskie. He vaulted over the ramp's railing to the ground some ten feet below, wounded leg and all. The first blood in the Huntsville siege had been spilled.
"Everyone take it easy," Carrasco announced. "Do as we say, and no one will be hurt. We are committed to a plan to leave this prison. We have nothing to lose, and we are willing to die if we have to."
With all the civilians rounded up and gathered nervously around a table in the library, Carrasco let them know in no uncertain terms that "if the warden hurts one of us, we're gonna kill one of you." Within minutes, he was on the telephone with the prison's warden, Howell Herbert (Hal) Husbands, to let him know that he was in control of the third-floor facility. According to Husbands, the call was very short, "only about thirty seconds or so because we didn't have a hell of a lot to say." Carrasco told the warden he was holding about eighty people—classroom and library personnel, and inmates—in the educational complex. He said he would be releasing the assembled convicts in groups of five and keeping all the civilians as hostages. With three gunmen holding seventy or more captives, some wondered how the captors would be able to maintain control in the confined quarters. Woodman was not puzzled, "Carrasco was walking around with a gun and that was supervision enough."
After abruptly hanging up on the warden, Carrasco snarled, "Get out of here," to the prisoners who had just started their post-lunch studies in the classroom and library. Some of the inmates were in a state of shock and did not move fast enough toward the facility's only exit—two double-paned glass doors. When the initial rush for freedom unexpectedly ended, fifty-six prisoners still had not made it out.
The six-foot Texan, dressed in a three-piece business suit and silver-tipped lizard cowboy boots, leaned back in his chair at the head table in a meeting room at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. For the last time, he reviewed his hand-written notes prepared for this day's Rotary Club luncheon. The mandatory announcements were winding down. He would be up next. It was for him just another one of the two-dozen or so such speeches he gave every year before various civic groups around the Lone Star State, promoting law and order in general and the Texas prison system in particular. He had written the following:
And in conclusion, gentlemen, let me just say that—one, my staff works every day with these troubled citizens who are not safe for us to have as neighbors. Two, my staff does its work in a professional and competent manner with the safety and welfare of the total prison community uppermost in their minds. Three, like any other organization composed of people, we make mistakes every day. The human chemistry alone of 17,000 inmates and 2,500 employees dictates that errors will occur, and four, until the citizens of Texas through their legislature say otherwise, the Texas Department of Corrections—what we call the TDC—will continue to be run by your employees—not by your inmates.
Words like these—and others such as "we're not coddling criminals" and "we're not running any kind of a hug-a-thug club" and "you do the crime, you do the time"—usually brought thunderous applause from then all-male audiences such as Rotary Clubs. A tough stance against the bad guys always found an appreciative audience in the Lone Star State of Texas.
The speaker-to-be, Ward James (Jim) Estelle, Jr., Director, TDC, congratulated the editor of the San Antonio Light newspaper for the fine turnout of Rotarians for this weekly meeting of the Club on Wednesday, July 24, 1974. As he did, a uniformed hotel bellman slipped unobtrusively on to the dais. Bending low and trying unsuccessfully to duck behind the seated Rotary Club leadership at the head table, the bellman approached Estelle and slipped him a pink telephone memo slip. Estelle took the memo, nodded thanks to the bellman, and quickly read the message. It was from Dorothy Coleman, his secretary at the TDC headquarters in Huntsville. "Carrasco's got hostages. Call your office immediately." The last word was underlined three times. Three exclamation points followed. The director knew the name Carrasco well and he looked reflexively at his watch. It would be a long time before he forgot that exact reading of 1:30 p.m.
Estelle knew Ms. Coleman would not send such an urgent message unless there was an emergency. He found it somewhat ironic that only three weeks ago he had told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in a telephone interview, "As far as we're concerned, there hasn't been any unusual activity (among the inmates)." Estelle turned to the Light's editor and said, "I'm sorry, but I've got to leave and I have to leave right now."
In an effort to do a favor for his host, he continued, "If you by any chance have a reporter here who can get to the front door of the hotel at the same time as I do, he might want to go with me. And that's all I can tell you right now." Cub reporter Ed Glosson was tabbed.
Using a hotel lobby pay phone to call his office, Estelle spoke to Ms. Coleman, whose information was still sketchy at best. Questions started rolling through Estelle's mind as he headed for his TDC airplane at the airport, from which he took off at 2:05 p.m. How many hostages were there and who were they? Estelle remembered that a grand jury was scheduled to tour the Huntsville prison that day. Had the grand jury been grabbed? Was Carrasco the only hostage-taker? Was this a prison-wide riot in the making? Was this an attempted breakout? What did Carrasco want? How many and what kind of weapons did he have? The answer to those questions and more would consume Ward James Estelle Jr.'s life for the next eleven and one-half days and alter it drastically forever after.
Fifteen-hundred miles northeast of Huntsville, in Washington, D. C. and in newspaper, radio, and television reports all across the United States and many parts of the world on that day, the big news was the pending impeachment of President Richard Milhous Nixon. July 24, 1974 was the same day the Nation's Chief Executive was ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court to turn over his damning Oval Office tape recordings.
In Huntsville, the day had all started peacefully enough on that July afternoon in 1974. It was a typical Texas scorcher. But in southeastern Texas, tropical mid- nineties heat with humidity to match was not a problem for those inside the air- conditioned, carpeted educational complex at the state prison. Linda Woodman was a forty-four-year-old librarian working in the Windham School District's educational facility. Prior to coming to work at Windham in 1972, four years divorced, with no children, she had been an eighth grade English teacher in her hometown of Conroe, about thirty miles south of Huntsville. She and co-librarians Fleming, House, and Standley had returned a few minutes early from their usual Wednesday luncheon at Hailey's, a local barbecue restaurant.
The topic of their conversation was library staffing. Naomi Rogers, who often car-pooled with Woodman, had an excused absence from work. She was working on her Masters Degree at Sam Houston State University. With a comprehensive test looming on Thursday, she took Wednesday off to bone up. Another librarian, Doris Thompson, called in sick that morning. A third librarian, Anna Dorrell, just happened to choose that particular day to quit her job—although nobody on the staff knew it yet. And reading instructor Phyllis Fox was not at Huntsville because she had been sent to check out some programs at another TDC unit.
That morning, because of the day's staff shortage in the library and the ensuing empty desks, Director of Library Services, Aline House had made a decision. She telephoned Ann Fleming who, only twenty-four days earlier, had joined the Windham school staff as a librarian. She was splitting her time between the Goree and Ferguson state prison units. "Why don't you meet us for lunch," Ann said, "and then plan to come back to our office at the Walls Unit. That way, we can sit down and work on a list of books to order for the women's prisons."
Excerpted from Eleven Days in Hell by William T. Harper. Copyright © 2004 William T. Harper. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
One—"Stop right there or I'll kill you!",
Two—"Let's get the hell out of here.",
Three—"There's a man up here with a gun.",
Four—"Fred, what the hell are you doing?",
Five—"I'm scared and sick, just sick.",
Six—"Put down your arms and surrender safely.",
Seven—"He will kill those people.",
Eight—"My God! They've shot Mr. Robinson.",
Nine—"We die a million deaths.",
Ten—"You play the cards you're dealt.",
Eleven—"We have more time.",
Twelve—"If you want to come, just come ahead.",
Thirteen—"We will assassinate everyone!",
Fourteen—"We will kill as many people as possible.",
Fifteen—"You don't treat women that way.",
Sixteen—"I have the four aces and the joker.",
Seventeen—"I'm going out of here, whether it's alive or dead.",
Eighteen—"Get ready because we're going to start killing!",
Nineteen—"I could have grabbed his gun.",
Twenty—"Meet my demands or prepare for war.",
Twenty-one—"I'm the executioner.",
Twenty-two—"I demand that an armored truck be waiting.",
Twenty-three—"If he'd only send out Linda Woodman.",
Twenty-four—"I'll see y'all soon.",
Citations and Notes,