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Eleven Days in Hell

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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.

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One—“Stop right there or I’ll kill you!”

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Chapter One

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 bloodpressure 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 thirdfloor library of the State Penitentiary in Huntsville,

 

Two—“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

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Chapter Two

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

—Steve Roach, inmate

The Texas Legislature created the Windham School

District in the Texas Department of Corrections in

1968. It was subject to the certification requirements and regulations of the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education. Its purpose was to provide educational and vocational opportunities for prison inmates that would help them when and if they returned to the general population. Attendance at once-a-week, six-hour classes was required for inmates having less than a fifth-grade education and it was voluntary for others. At the Walls Unit, the

Windham group of about fifteen teachers and librarians was housed on the 11,250 square-foot top floor of a rectangular, three-story building made of reinforced concrete faced with masonry bricks with steel roof trusses. It was, unintentionally, a fortress.

The 167-by-67 foot area was remodeled in 1972 from an auditorium into the educational facility. About fifty percent of the room’s interior was classroom, thirty percent was library, and the remaining twenty percent—which divided the two larger rooms—was

 

Three—“There’s a man up here with a gun.”

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Chapter Three

“There’s a man up here with a gun.”

—Novella Pollard, hostage

Joseph John O’Brien was born June 20, 1928, behind

Chicago’s famous stockyards. The youngest of three children, with a brother and a sister, he was the first of the Irish family to be born in the United States. Their mother emigrated from Donegal and their father from

Tipperary. O’Brien left the Windy City at fourteen for

San Antonio, Texas, where he enrolled in a Catholic

Seminary. He knew he “always wanted to be a priest” and later joined the Oblate of Mary Immaculate

(O.M.I.) order and received some of his training in

San Antonio in the early 1950s. He was appointed a prison chaplain with the Texas Department of

Corrections in 1962. Prior to that he served Texas’ Rio

Grande valley where he perfected his Spanish.

Working with notorious inmates such as the wellknown Carrasco was old hat to Father O’Brien. Long before coming to Huntsville, he was chaplain at a U.S.

Government alien detention camp in McAllen, Texas.

He described it, “as a hideout camp for the CIA.”

 

Four—“Fred, what the hell are you doing?”

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Chapter Four

“Fred, what the hell are you doing?”

—Father O’Brien, hostage

After ordering all but the most essential civilian employees out of the Walls and clearing the yards and inside compound of all inmates by returning them immediately to their cells, Warden Husbands responded to one of Fred Carrasco’s demands to “get hold of Father O’Brien, and have him come up here so we can talk to him and negotiate through him.”1

Husbands, with O’Brien already at his side, told

Carrasco the priest was on his way. However, Carrasco had conditions. The Catholic clergyman was to remove his religious collar and have his hands cuffed in front of him. Turning to the Father while Carrasco waited, the warden explained the conditions. They were no problem for O’Brien.

“Now you don’t have to go up there,” the warden advised the priest as he briefly reiterated the Texas

Department of Corrections policy regarding hostagetaking—a policy that all prison workers, as part of their job orientation, have to review and sign. 2

 

Five—“I’m scared and sick, just sick.”

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Chapter Five

“I’m scared and sick, just sick.”

—Betty Branch, wife of hostage, Jack Branch

In the first hour of the takeover, Carrasco instructed the hostage inmates to build a barricade inside the educational complex doorway. File cabinets, tables, and portable shelves were moved in front of the glass doors at the library entrance. Piled on the filing cabinets were boxes of books. Up against the inner side of the filing cabinets was a table, upon which two straight-back, unpadded chairs were placed, facing inward. Those were the chairs for the “honor guard”— the hostages would be seated there with a rope around their shoulders and chair backs, and across their upper legs and under the chair seat. With one wrist handcuffed to a metal filing cabinet, they would sit with their backs to the doors, serving as shields to prevent TDC sharpshooters from firing into the complex and picking off the hostage-holders.

After releasing all the inmates, Carrasco’s search intensified for Correctional Officer (CO) Bobby Heard, the twenty-seven-year-old Sam Houston State

 

Six—“Put down your arms and surrender safely.”

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Chapter Six

“Put down your arms and surrender safely.”

—TDC Director, Jim Estelle, Jr.

Montemayor’s contact with Carrasco seemed to bring progress. Carrasco assured him that if the authorities did not “charge me, the hostages will be safe.”1 A hand-written message from Estelle was sent to the library. “You have not harmed anyone,” it read.

“Neither have we. We cannot dishonor the hostages by placing them in greater danger by delivering more weapons to you . . . we cannot do more than ask you to consider the feelings of your own family and the feelings of your hostages and their family. Put down your arms and surrender safely.”2

Carrasco was told if he freed his civilian prisoners along with Heard and gave himself up, his attorney would witness his safe surrender in front of the media to make sure “we do not hurt you, injure you, brutalize you . . .”3 What they were telling him was they would give him almost anything he wanted—except exit from the prison. The mercurial Carrasco flew into a rage and negotiations fell apart. By now, Father

 

Seven—“He will kill those people.”

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Chapter Seven

July 25, 1974 • Day Two

“He will kill those people.”

—Father O’Brien, hostage

Somewhere around one o’clock on Thursday morning,

Father O’Brien made his last trip to the prison library.

Fred Carrasco offered to let him sleep at home, “Or, if he wants to sleep here, it’s up to him.” 1 O’Brien returned to the third-floor complex, bringing more sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and minor medications such as aspirin and antacids. At least three times during the preceding twelve hours he had walked in and out, a courier of supplies and messages.

Each time he left, he promised the women he would come back. And each time he left, the wily Carrasco made the hostages move to another part of the library so the priest could not tell authorities exactly where they were. But the ever-suspicious Cuevas and

Dominguez were convinced that O’Brien was spying on them.

O’Brien was indeed giving the authorities as much information as he could. He told them more about

Bobby Heard, who was being constantly taunted by his captors with comments like, “Why don’t you run to the attic again, Heard?”2 He reported on the mirrors

 

Eight—“My God! They’ve shot Mr. Robinson.”

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Chapter Eight

“My God! They’ve shot

Mr. Robinson!”

—Novella Pollard, hostage

It was somewhere around seven o’clock on Thursday morning when Warden Husbands received the next telephone call from the library. “Some of the hostages,” he recalled, “said Carrasco was going to kill them if we didn’t meet his demands” of the night before for arms and ammunition. Carrasco had hostages lined up in chairs in front of the filing cabinet barricade.

Heard was still tied to a chair on top of the protective wall where the rattled guard would catch the first bullet were it to come from the inside or the outside. 1

Threatening the hostages with death, an edgy

Carrasco complained about noise coming from the second floor area below, saying TDC was trying to break in again. As it turned out, any noise—any noise at all—coming from outside the library’s confines made Carrasco and the others certain TDC was coming in. As Husbands had earlier explained, the cooks came to work at their usual 4:00 a.m. and began serving breakfast at 6:00 a.m. Carrasco ordered Linda

 

Nine—“We die a million deaths.”

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Chapter Nine

“We die a million deaths.”

—Linda Woodman, hostage

At one point on Thursday, things started looking up— somewhat. Tables were set up in the center of the library forming a dining area and the hostages ate the food the TDC sent up in short-lived comfort. They had taken turns ordering food for the group. Ann

Fleming remembered “When I was trying to make up my mind about what I wanted, Carrasco asked, ‘Don’t you like Mexican food?’ and I said I love Mexican food.”1

Linda Woodman had been appointed to be

Carrasco’s secretary. “He had no reason to just choose me,” she stated. “I think I may have instigated some of that. I am a person, if I’m involved, I want to be in the know. I don’t want things going on I don’t know about.”2

She had to place his phone calls to the warden and others on the outside—such as Carrasco’s mother-inlaw, his San Antonio lawyer Gillespie, and the governor of Texas. She typed up his demands for presentation to TDC. She put a call through to Cuevas’ wife, via the sheriff’s office in Pecos, Texas. The inmate

 

Ten—“You play the cards you’re dealt.”

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Chapter Ten

“You play the cards you’re dealt.”

—TDC Director, Jim Estelle, Jr.

Meanwhile, Fred Carrasco had a new reason to get nervous.

Jim Estelle recalls the arrival of some unexpected guests. “Here comes a whole half-dozen of these big

Hueys, an Army convoy of helicopters going on maneuvers out of Camp Polk, Louisiana on their way to Fort Hood. They set down at the Huntsville airport to re-fuel! That meant they were coming in a low altitude on approach. Carrasco and his people got really excited over that. They didn’t know what the hell was going on. I said to him, ‘I’m as much in the dark as you are. Trust me for a few minutes and I’ll find out.’” Estelle and one of the Texas Rangers rushed to the airport where they met an army chief warrant officer. When Estelle told him what the situation was and “he just about drained white.” With helicopters on the ground and a dozen more en route, the director told the CWO to “get on the telephone, the radio, or whatever communications you got, get back to your people, and tell them to change their route because if you keep stopping here at Huntsville, you ain’t going

 

Eleven—“We have more time.”

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Chapter Eleven

“We have more time.”

—TDC Director, Jim Estelle, Jr.

That meal must have totally satiated Fred Carrasco and induced some sort of temporary amnesia.

Amazingly and inexplicably, there was neither further conversation nor demands for weapons nor threats of killing hostages for the rest of Thursday night. Carrasco did not call Estelle nor did he call

Montemayor. And there was no way those in the

Think Tank wanted to renew the day’s previous discussion. Though glad to still be alive, the hostages were, to say the least, confused. The TDC director could not explain it to the media. He would only say,

“We have more time.” Prison spokesman Ron Taylor said there would be no more moves at all until 10:00 a.m. the next day, Friday. “We asked the inmates if they were agreeable to break off negotiations. They were, so we did,” Taylor said. He called the suspension of negotiations “a good sign” and added it had allowed prison officials to “buy time.”1 And time was the commodity Estelle and the Texas

 

Twelve—“If you want to come, just come ahead.”

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Chapter Twelve

July 26, 1974 • Day Three

“If you want to come, just come ahead.”

—Rudy Dominguez, hostage-taker

The morning sun bolted out of the swamps of western Louisiana, its rays slid across the Sabine

River and spiked through the Piney Woods of East

Texas. Another scorcher was on its way. The sun’s rays climbed twenty feet to the top of the walls surrounding the red brick fortress in Huntsville and spilled over into the prison yard. With the morning temperature already approaching eighty degrees— the high for the day would near the triple digits, and its late evening thermometer would hover near ninety.

Negotiations began again at 10:00 a.m. Warden

Husbands told Carrasco he would be given everything he demanded—helmets, walkie-talkies, clothing—everything, except the bulletproof vests.

“The bullet-proof vests were something we would not want to give them,” FBI-man Bob Wiatt said. As for the helmets, “the hostiles were more concerned about somebody coming up behind them and shooting them in the head. We didn’t want to make them totally impregnable with bulletproof vests and helmets. It

 

Thirteen—“We will assassinate everyone!”

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Chapter Thirteen

“We will assassinate everyone!”

—Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker

With their intelligence-gathering system in place, the

Command Post returned to the task of formulating a plan for entering the library with an attack team, if necessary. No thought, scheme, nor concept, was rejected out of hand, no matter how far out of the box it might seem to be. Some ideas had what TDC

Director Estelle called a “Buck Rogers” quality about them.1 Under even the best-case scenarios, they knew an assault would no doubt be a blood bath. The aim was to hit hard, hit fast, with as much firepower as they could muster, and with the element of surprise.

It would have to be a massive, shocking blow, stunning the gunmen and traumatizing them before they could get off any rounds aimed at their captives.

Everyone in the Command Post knew there was no way they could hit hard enough and fast enough to save all the hostages. It was just a matter of reducing the losses, of lowering the body count. How many hostage lives could they afford to lose in order to save how many others? How many body bags would they need?

 

Fourteen—“We will kill as many people as possible.”

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Chapter Fourteen

“We will kill as many people as possible.”

—Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker

Federico Gomez Carrasco’s moods were hard for those in the Command Post to predict. On several occasions,

TDC Director Estelle made, or authorized lawyer

Ruben Montemayor to make, offers to Carrasco that quickly backfired. For instance, late Friday after about thirty minutes of negotiations directly between Estelle and Carrasco, an offer of transportation was made.

Estelle assumed, one way or the other, the three hostiles would need a getaway vehicle. According to

Warden Husbands, “We told Carrasco there would be a car inside the Walls waiting for his instructions.

We told him that the car would be pulled up to the ramp in front of the building, filled with gas with the motor either running or off, whatever he wished.”1

Although authorities had had expected it since day one of the siege, Carrasco had not asked for transportation in exchange for the hostages.

Estelle did not tell the hostage-takers they were being allowed to go free. They were only offered transportation. Estelle remembered, “Had they taken it up, we’d have arranged their safe conduct—but only

 

Fifteen—“You don’t treat women that way.”

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Chapter Fifteen

July 27, 1974 • Day Four

“You don’t treat women that way.”

— TDC Director, Jim Estelle, Jr.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, Aline House— awake because of a painful back ache from sleeping on the library floor—saw some strange goings on in the room. Even at that hour, it was not dark in the complex because the overhead lights glared twentyfour hours a day. The first thing she noticed was Rudy

Dominguez and Ignacio Cuevas, using electrical cord wrapped around the door handles, had locked shut the two staff restrooms in the library. They were afraid prison guards could enter their fortress through those rooms so they closed them off, leaving only the inmates’ restroom to serve the needs of all seventeen people. Then she saw the four extremely busy but quiet hostage inmates moving a study carrel (an enclosed, partitioned table often used for individual study in libraries) to the middle of the floor.

They were building an interior barricade to further protect themselves from their expected TDC attack.

 

Sixteen—“I have the four aces and the joker.”

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Chapter Sixteen

“I have the four aces and the joker!”

—Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker

Fred Carrasco’s two-day media scheme met with

Estelle’s approval, in spite of the many things the frantic and misguided hostages told the reporters, some highly critical of him and the Texas Department of Corrections. The director felt as long as Carrasco was using the hostages for his propaganda purposes, they would be relatively safe. He was not using them for target practice. Then Cuevas instilled another huge dose of terror into the hostages. Their fear was heightened tremendously and its byproduct was a highly elevated sense of urgency in the hostages’ voices when they subsequently talked with their families and the media.

It started when Cuevas was still incensed following his animated telephone conversation with

Juanita Hernandez, his second wife and mother of the last four of his nine children, who called him from the Sheriff’s office in Pecos, Texas. Steaming over that apparent argument, the former farm laborer stormed over to Novella Pollard and Bobby Heard who were manning the barricade in front of the door. Pointing

 

Seventeen—“I’m going out of here, whether it’s alive or dead.”

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Chapter Seventeen

July 28, 1974 • Day Five

“I’m going out of here, whether it’s alive or dead.”

—Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker

On Sunday, July 28, 1974, the NBC-TV Sunday

Evening News broadcast with Floyd Kalber anchoring from New York City, the President Nixon impeachment story got prominent billing. Four of the first five items dealt with it. Kalber also introduced stories about peace talks between Greece and Turkey, fighting in Vietnam, a new sex manual being released in the USSR, the Eleventh Annual Craftsbury

Common Old-time Fiddlers’ convention in Vermont, and how the “Texas state prison siege continues.” It was still national news.1

For those involved with the siege, the impeachment proceedings were not a major concern, and in fact received no discussion that day. Except for Ignacio Cuevas. Speaking like a self-imposed victim of social oppression, he talked about the presidency. “The only president worth anything,” he wailed, “was Kennedy and that’s why they killed him.

They kill the good people and the poor people.”2

 

Eighteen—“Get ready because we’re going to start killing!”

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Chapter Eighteen

“Get ready because we’re going to start killing!”

—Fred Carrasco, hostage-taker

Henry Escamilla, less than two weeks away from his forty-first birthday, was a San Antonian serving five years on a shoplifting conviction. As a volunteer hostage, he sat almost completely silent throughout the ordeal, off by himself most of the time, wearing large dark glasses. According to Linda Woodman,

“when he did walk around, he never said a word to any of us. I had the feeling that he was more frightened than any of us.”1

To Novella Pollard who remembered him from one of her typing classes, he was an enigma. “He was a very strange person,” she recalled. “He never did talk much at all in class. In fact, for two days (of the siege)

I didn’t see him. I thought he had left. But finally, he came over to our side in the library and just sat and watched us.”2

While serving his shift at the door, Escamilla sat on the pile of book boxes stacked there and watched

Cuevas intently. The captor, who was also on guard duty, appeared to be dozing off. It was time for the inmate hostage to initiate the plan he hatched only

 

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