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Arizona Prisoners Seize Tower; State Officials Point Fingers

On February 1, 2004, the longest prison hostage drama in U.S. history ended peacefully as two Arizona prisoners released their final hostage, descended from their surveillance tower stronghold, and surrendered to an army of state and local police ringing the compound. The 15-day ordeal at the Arizona Prison Complex-Lewis may have been sparked by an escape attempt gone awry, but evidence suggests that lapses in security and the prison's fortress-like design had already set the stage for disaster.

The drama began around 3 a.m. on January 18, 2004 when two Morey Unit prisoners, Ricky Wassenaar, 40, and Steven Coy, 39, reported for work in the prison kitchen. Armed with hidden shanks, the two quickly obtained control of the kitchen, handcuffing guard Kenneth L. Martin to a tool cage and tying up a female civilian kitchen worker with an electrical cord.

Wassenaar donned the guard's uniform, shaved his beard so as to resemble the guard, and made his way to a surveillance tower manned by Jason Auch, 21, and Lois Fraley, 33. On the job for less than 6 months, Auch assumed Wassenaar was a guard and buzzed him into the tower. Once inside, Wassenaar overpowered Auch and Fraley, handcuffed them, and took control of the tower and its arsenal.

Coy had remained in the kitchen where he allegedly raped the civilian kitchen worker. Coy then attempted to take guard Robert Cornett hostage but he escaped; Coy pursued him. Somewhere between the kitchen and the guard tower Coy was confronted by Cornett and other guards. He was about to be subdued when Wassenaar, now in possession of a rifle, began firing from the tower. Thinking the uniformed Wassenaar was a guard, Lt. William Jones asked him who he was shooting at. "You," came the reply. Jones ordered the guards to evacuate the area, leaving Coy to make his way to the tower where he was buzzed in by Wassenaar.

The stand off continued for 15 days. Auch was released on January 24. Fraley, who Coy allegedly raped in the first hours of the takeover, was held until the two surrendered on February 1.

Although four SWAT teams were on the scene, snipers were never considered an option. According to prison officials, the prison's design, which utilizes central towers located within the perimeter, prevented tactical teams from getting close to the tower or its heavily armed occupants without risking their own lives or the lives of the hostages. "It's our worst nightmare," said Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) spokeswoman Cam Hunter. "This facility is meant to protect our corrections officers and staff. It is a fortress."

Criticism of the ADOC and its handling of the takeover came quickly. One criticism involves the near total blackout of information surrounding the incident. During the crisis, the ADOC declined to comment on nearly every aspect of the case and stymied media attempts to gain information. In addition to sequestering reporters a half mile away, the ADOC secured a restricted airspace designation around the prison to prevent media helicopters from shooting news video. During the standoff, ADOC Director Dora Schriro asserted that releasing information could compromise negotiations or imperil the hostages.

But information continued to be withheld even after the standoff. On February 3, The Arizona Republic noted that state officials had yet to answer even basic inquires such as how the prisoners made the shanks, the names of the guards involved in the initial takeover, or why the prisoners were given a radio on the first day of the takeover if officials believed news coverage might endanger the hostages.

Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground, an advocacy group for prisoners, decried the state's stranglehold on information. "It's absolutely chilling. It smacks of state control of the Fourth Estate," she said.

Lax security and under trained guards apparently played a major role in the takeover. Auch, the guard who buzzed Wassenaar into the tower without confirming his identity, had been on the job less than six months. Guards at the prison wonder why Auch and Fraley, both relatively inexperienced, were placed together in an armed post in the first place. They also question how Coy made it past other guards to join Wassenaar in the tower.

Sgt. Brian Dudley, speaking to a governor-appointed panel reviewing the incident, said Coy made it to the tower "because our officers weren't qualified to be here in the first place." He added that the ADOC had so little trust in the ability of its guards that when the alarm finally sounded, the prison's tactical response team was ordered to "stand down." According to Dudley, the department lacked confidence in the guards' training and instead waited on local law enforcement to arrive. "We are considered a joke by the law enforcement community at large," said Dudley.

Even more disturbing, at least two hours passed from the time the prisoners took control of the kitchen until an emergency call for help went out. One guard noticed his coworkers laying on the tower floor but thought they were horse playing. "Hey, answer your radio," he hollered while knocking on the window. He left after receiving no answer.

Other security lapses are evident. Only one guard was assigned to supervise 17 prisoners in the kitchen where the takeover began. A guard assigned to watch video monitors detected nothing unusual during the takeover because he was busy doing paperwork. Several guards responded slowly after the alarm was sounded because they thought it was a drill.

Inexperience may be a factor. The prison at Lewis has the highest turnover rate of any Arizona prison. During each month in 2003, 249 of the 999 full time positions at the prison were vacant. Statewide, 697 guards quit their jobs in 2003. Low pay (new guards start at $24,954 a year) is cited as one reason for the high turnover rate. "You can't learn everything in school," said Sgt. Joe Massella, president of the Arizona Peace Officer Association. "You've got to be taught on the job. We don't have enough officers sticking around to pass along the experience."

Unbelievably, even after the surrender, Wassenaar made it through two searches and out of the compound with a handcuff key taped to the bottom of his foot. Wassenaar and Coy were pat-searched immediately upon exiting the tower, then taken to a nearby area and strip searched. Both searches failed to find the key, which was discovered on Wassenaar only after he arrived at a federal prison.

Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano and the state legislature have launched independent investigations into the standoff. Napolitano's "blue-ribbon" panel, which met for the first time on February 11, 2004, consists mainly of her own top-level staffers. Republican lawmakers, apparently fearing a biased investigation, announced on February 12 that the Legislature would conduct its own review of the incident. Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romleya known Napolitano rival who is also in charge of prosecuting Wassenaar and Coywas picked to head the legislative investigation.

On March 2, 2004, the governor's panel scooped legislative investigators and released details of their blistering preliminary report. "The overall unprofessionalism of staff was rampant at this facility," said Grant Woods, co-chairman of the panel. "The way this facility has been managed contributed to how this situation happened."

Similarly, an ADOC audit performed in late February detected numerous problems. "Even after great scrutiny was placed on this facility, as recently as a week ago there were people asleep, playing Game Boys and acting unprofessionally," said Woods. "It really makes you wonder, if people don't get their act together after the longest hostage standoff in U.S. history, you wonder if they ever will."

ADOC Director Schriro, a Napolitano appointee, is also caught in the controversy surrounding the takeover. Tactical experts, who had devised a plan they thought would be successful, criticized Schriro for her decision to forego a SWAT assault when the general consensus was that Fraley was being sexually assaulted in the tower.

But Schriro, who came to the ADOC in 2003, is no stranger to controversy. In 2002, during her tenure as director of corrections for the City of St. Louis, five prisoners escaped from a medium-security prison. Schriro was suspended after an investigation revealed a plethora of lax security measures. More recently, a federal judge refused to admit Schriro's sworn testimony in a prisoner lawsuit, saying she could not be trusted to tell the truth [see sidebar].

As part of the surrender deal, Wassenaar and Coy were given 3 steak dinners and 2 cans of beer, and Wassenaar was allowed to perform a radio interview before leaving the tower. Negotiators also promised the pair they would be transferred to federal custody and imprisoned out of state.

However, it appears that Romley, a likely contender in the 2006 gubernatorial race, has no intention of keeping that promise. Romley says the agreement, struck during hostage negotiations, is not legally binding. "I believe it was necessary to move as expeditiously ... as possible on this," said Romley "I was not in agreement that they should move out of state, that they should be given what they were asking for.... You can promise them whatever you wish, but that is not an enforceable contract in Arizona."

Romley's opposition to the deal may be political posturinghe has openly criticized Napolitano for her involvement in the negotiationsbut his actions could have far-reaching consequences. If Romley is successful in derailing the deal, how much weight will the promises of negotiators carry the next time they are called on to diffuse a potentially deadly situation?

Wassenaar and Coy remain at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix awaiting trial on a 25-count indictment. Wassenaar is currently serving a 28-year sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Coy, convicted of rape, is serving life without parole.

Sources: The Arizona Republic, Associated Press, Phoenix New Times

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