Home From the Magazine The Nation’s Longest Prison Hostage Siege in History

The early 1970s were a somewhat turbulent time for both our state and our nation, especially 1974. While Nixon was being investigated for the Watergate scandal, multiple murderer Elmer Wayne Henley of Houston was on trial in San Antonio, and Texas Governor John Connally was being indicted on bribery charges (that were later cleared), and Federico “Fred” Carrasco and two other inmates managed to take 11 civilian workers and 4 inmates hostage at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Although media descended in hordes on the quiet East Texas town, not much was reported statewide or nationally about the 1974 Huntsville Prison Siege that is to this day the longest hostage-taking siege in the history of the United States.

Federico “Fred” Carrasco

Federico “Fred” Carrasco, also known by the age of 34 as “el Viejo” (the old man), was the most powerful drug lord in south Texas, overseeing a cocaine and heroin empire that stretched from Guadalajara to San Diego during he 60s and 70s. Carrasco was serving a life sentence for the attempted murder of a police officer. Carrasco, born and raised in San Antonio, made his base in Nuevo Laredo after leading a brutal gang war that claimed approximately 100 victims in execution-style murders, including more than two dozen policemen.

Carrasco, himself, is suspected of at least 47 murders during his criminal career. Carrasco’s organization was also responsible for the murders of dozens of other victims, mostly other gang members, in Laredo and San Antonio and across cities in Texas and the United States.

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. He was eventually able to bribe authorities and escape prison in Jalisco in a laundry truck in December of that same year.

Carrasco returned to the United States and vowed that he would never be taken alive by law enforcement. He was arrested in July 1973 in San Antonio after a motel shoot-out where he was shot four times by police and survived. He pled guilty to attempted murder, reportedly in exchange for the release of his wife Rosa, and ended up at the Walls Unit with a life sentence, a pronounced limp, and a cane as a result of the shoot-out.

In a book by Ron Rozelle, Warden (Bright Sky Press, 2004), Jim Willett, a prison guard, who would later become a death row warden, recalled Carrasco as a slightly overweight Mexican man of average height, perhaps a little taller than most Mexican men. Willett noted that Carrasco never smiled and served as a porter in the chapel for Father Joseph O’Brien. Carrasco apparently began to scheme with two fellow inmates, Ignacio Cuevas and Rudolfo (Rudy) Dominguez. Cuevas was in prison on a 45-year sentence for a 1970 murder with malice charge, and he worked in the dining hall. There are no recollections of Rudy Dominguez or what he was convicted of to be sentenced to the Walls Unit.

In 1847, the Walls Unit was the birthplace of the Texas prison system. Inside the red brick wall that surrounded the facility were cell blocks, the death chamber, an infirmary, and a classroom building. On the third floor of the classroom building was where the drama would unfold.

At approximately 1 p.m. on the afternoon of July 24, 1974, shots rang out inside the Walls Unit. Jim Willett recalls that his shift was about to begin when the first shots were fired. His friend Wayne Scott and Sergeant Bruce Noviskie decided to investigate the disturbance in the prison education department at the top of a three-story building that had no name.

Willett says that as the two officers walked up the long ramp outside the building toward the glass doors, the first bullet zipped through Scott’s shirt into his left side about four inches above his belt. Another bullet lodged itself in the heel of Noviskie’s shoe. Willett arrived a few minutes after they’d scrambled to safety. He noted that the prison was in chaos. Supervisors whom he had never seen lose their composure were shaken and unsure of what to do. Nobody knew who was shooting. Willett remembered thinking, “Whoever had orchestrated this plan had chosen wisely. The third floor had no windows, and there was only one way in or out. The third floor was a fortress.” It was later learned that a fellow inmate had smuggled in three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in the center of a carved out ham and in a large can of peaches for Carrasco.

Inside the prison library, Carrasco and two other inmates, Rudy Dominguez and Ignacio Cuevas, took 10 civilian workers: Glen D. Johnson, Ronald W. Robinson, Aline V. House, Novella M. Pollard, Linda G. Woodman, Elizabeth Y. Beseda (a prison math teacher), Julia C. Standley (a prison librarian), Bertha M. Savis, Ann Fleming, and Anthony Branch; a prison guard—Bobby Heard; and 4 inmates: Martin Quiroz, Henry Escamilla, Steve Robertson, and Florencio Vera hostage. The library had no windows or exits, except for the double glass doors. The inmates barricaded the doors with filing cabinets. They would rotate the handcuffed hostages in to sit on the barricades.

By 1:30 p.m. the story broke and an army of media descended to a makeshift camp just outside the Walls Unit. Reporters on the scene that day recalled that temperatures were in the 90s and it was raining. The Chronicle’s makeshift outpost, complete with chairs, a table, rain gear, food, and ice also had it’s own hastily laid phone line. The city later put up a tent shelter for the dozens of reporters covering the story. The phone company provided a trailer equipped with pay phones, however the Chronicle hung on to its own line.

Inmates hoeing near the Brazos River in the 70s. (photo from Warden: Prison Life and Death from the inside Out by Jim Willett and Ron Rozelle)

Negotiations began immediately with prison warden H. H. Husbands and the Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, W. J. Estelle Jr., the Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the FBI arrived to assist. Carrasco, who sent for the prison chaplin Father Joseph O’Brien to carry his message to the warden, began his demands with a television set, handcuffs, bulletproof helmets, and vests. All of which were met much to the dismay of many of the guards according to Willett. The helmets were fabricated according to Carrasco’s exact specifications in the metal shop. However, Willett noted that those demands were most likely met because one of their own guards was a hostage and that made the situation all the more precarious. In a thesis paper titled “Thoughts, Views, and Recollections: The 1974 Carrasco Prison Siege Huntsville, Texas” it is reported that Bobby Heard, the prison guard who was 27 at the time of the siege, was Carrasco’s “first designated hostage to die.” At one point in the siege, Heard screamed into the phone to the wardens, “Give them whatever they want, and at least we’ll know we tried, that we didn’t die cooped up in here like a slaughterhouse—and that’s what it will be.”

On the second day of the siege, Willett noted that Father O’Brien returned to the library to comfort the hostages and try to council with Carrasco, however O’Brien was not released again after that.

As the siege dragged on, it was reported that officials were seen taking clothing to Carrasco after he demanded, “three tailored suits, three pairs of Nunn-Bush shoes (a very expensive brand at the time), three shirts and ties, cologne, and toothbrushes. Another story said that prison officials delivered 17 steak dinners to the group from La Sire, one of the city’s finer restaurants. The ribeyes and filets were all cooked medium, served with baked potatoes, and tossed salad and cost $78.75 at group rates.

At one point Carrasco’s lawyer aide said his client had vowed to die rather than live “caged up like an animal.” Reporter Larry Cooper’s July 27 story quoted Carrasco as saying, “I’ve got plenty of ammunition, and I’m ready to use it. I’m ready for anything.” In another story, Carrasco threatened “to finish them off and kill as many people as possible if we are provoked or our demands are not met.”

While prison officials, the FBI and the Texas Rangers worked to develop a plan to end the siege, Carrasco became increasingly agitated and desperate. Apparently, according to Willett’s recollections in Warden, the dining hall was below the library in the education building and Carrasco became agitated by the noise in the dining hall during the inmates’ meal times. He believed that an assault was being organized down there and wanted it quiet. Although Warden Husbands tried to assure him that the racket was only the normal sounds of the dining room, Carrasco, who threatened to kill a hostage if the noise didn’t stop, got his wish and through the remainder of the siege the inmates’ meals were brought to them in their cells in paper bags called “Johnny sacks.” The prison was on a virtual lockdown, and guards went from working 8-hour to 12-hour shifts.

One hostage, Glenn Johnson—the education and recreation consultant at the Walls Unit—was released after suffering a heart attack. Willett rode with Johnson to the hospital and reports that on the way there Johnson stated, “It’s a bad situation.”

A second woman, Mrs. House, feigned a heart attack and was kept in the hospital with guards so as not to alert Carrasco to the ploy. One of the hostage inmates, Henry Escamilla, escaped by jumping through the plate-glass front doors of the library. He was alive but covered in blood from injuries received from the shattered glass.

On the eleventh day of the siege, Saturday, August 3, 1974, the convicts finally made their desperate escape attempt just before 10 p.m. Earlier in the evening, Carrasco told each one of the hostages to call their loved ones to say goodbye. Willett recalled seeing an armored car parked by the base of the ramp and knew that this was one of the final demands. Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe had approved this demand. Carrasco had claimed the car was needed because they were planning to flee to Cuba and appeal to Fidel Castro for aid in their case. The remaining women and Father O’Brien were selected to escort Carrasco, Dominguez, and Cuevas in their departure to Cuba.

Reporters on the scene said that shots rang out at approximately 9:30 p.m. Willett recalled hearing a popping sound, like firecrackers, going off in the distance. Then a silence, then another flurry of pops, more silence then louder shots.

Ignacio Cuevas

In the final moments of the siege, Carrasco, Dominguez, and Cuevas each handcuffed themselves to one of the female hostages and this group along with Father O’Brien moved out of the library toward the waiting vehicle in a makeshift shield consisting of legal books taped to mobile blackboards that was later dubbed by the press as the Trojan Taco and Piñata. The remaining hostages were handcuffed to the outside of the structure and formed a circle around the makeshift shield. As the group rolled the shield down a ramp, prison guards and the Texas Rangers blasted the group with fire hoses that had been provided by the Huntsville Fire Department. As they blasted the group with the high-pressure water, the capsule began to topple, however there was a rupture in one of the hoses, which gave the convicts, Carrasco and Dominguez, time to steady themselves once more and fatally shot Elizabeth Beseda (handcuffed to Carrasco) and Julia Standley (handcuffed to Dominguez). When the prison officials returned fire, Carrasco committed suicide and Dominguez took a bullet from a member of the 13-man strike team. Father O’Brien was also shot, but his wound was not life threatening. Cuevas lay motionless under one of the hostages, but he was not injured. He was later taken back into custody.

Of the event, Cal Thomas of Fox News made this statement, “None of us who were there for those 11 days will ever forget the tension, the heat, the frustration, and the courage of so many good people, inside and outside the prison. It is a tragedy that two hostages died. It is a miracle all the rest lived.” However, this event received little press even afterwards because President Nixon had stepped down from his presidency six days after the siege ended.

Ignacio Cuevas, the surviving perpetrator, was tried under a Texas law that makes an accomplice liable for crimes committed in the same incident. (Evidence showed that the bullets that killed Mrs. Standley came from the gun of one of the other inmates who died trying to escape.) Cuevas was convicted three times of capital murder. He was sentenced to death for the slaying of Julia Standley. The first two convictions were overturned on appeal. Cuevas was moved to death row at the Ellis Unit on May 30, 1975. He was executed on May 23, 1991, just a few yards away from where Standley and Beseda were slain in the climax of the inmates’ siege and escape attempt.

Cuevas’s last meal request consisted of chicken dumplings, steamed rice, sliced bread, black-eyed peas and iced tea. His last words were, ‘I’m going to a beautiful place. O.K., Warden, roll ’em.’”

In 2006, Huntsville native, Barbara Sloan, who is an internationally renowned fashion and commercial photographer, began an ambitious project to capture the complexities and emotions of the death penalty in Texas through photographs. Sloan called the project, “Last Statement,” a reference to both the last words of condemned men and the reflections gathered from the family members she photographs. The exhibit’s goal is to give an objective look at the emotional struggles of both the families of the executed and the families of their victims through fine art portraits. Since its debut in early 2007, “Last Statement” has been on display in the Texas Prison Museum as a rotating exhibit of black-and-white silverpoint photographs. Among the highlights of the new additions to Sloan’s collection, which now includes more than 50 images, are portraits of Claudia Beseda-Burns and Dru Standley Rich, the daughters of Elizabeth Beseda and Julia Standley. In a statement to the Huntsville Item, Sloan noted, “I wanted to have these here because it was such an important event for Huntsville and as far as this exhibit goes.”

Information about this prison escape, Carrasco’s cane, a walkie-talkie, and a protective helmet fashioned for Carrasco in the prison metal shop, as well as photos from the days of the siege and Sloan’s “Last Statement,” can be viewed at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. You can also read about this historical event in William T. Harper’s book Eleven Days in Hell.

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