As the lunch hour came to an end on July 24, 1974, it seemed to be a normal summer afternoon in the Walls Unit in downtown Huntsville. That normalcy halted suddenly as the back to work whistle blew in the yard.
The official name of the complex is the Huntsville Unit, but the red brick structures that has detained Texas convicts since 1854 is more commonly known as The Walls.
When that whistle blew, inmate Fred Gomez Carrasco fired a shot into the ceiling of the library on the third floor of the Walls educational complex. There were 80 people in the library and the adjoining classroom at the time.
On that signal, Ignacio Cuevas removed a length of chain hidden in the leg of his prison whites. He used the chain to wrap around the library’s door handles. While Cuevas barricaded the door, Carrasco began removing the hundreds of rounds of ammunition that had been taped to his leg.
Carrasco was serving a life sentence for the shooting of a San Antonio police officer. The four gunshot wounds he sustained during his capture in July 1973 got him a spot in the Walls Unit, which was officially classified as medium security. He recruited Cuevas and Rudolfo Dominguez to join him in the riot because he knew the two Latinos would follow his orders without hesitation.
Cuevas was serving a 45-year murder sentence. Dominguez was in the midst of a 15-year sentence. In a psychological profile of the trio, Dominguez was described as “near-psychotic.” He was the least intelligent and most volatile of the three. In the investigation that followed the siege, administrators said that the Walls Unit actually operated as a maximum security facility, despite its classification, since many of the most dangerous inmates in the prison system often were brought to Walls for medical treatment.
But many still wonder if the whole ordeal would have been avoided if Carrasco had been housed at the Ellis Unit.
The former drug lord was assigned to light custodial work in the chapel under the supervision of the Rev. Joseph John O’Brien. O’Brien described Carrasco as a pear-shaped man who didn’t look tough or act mean — and certainly “did not appear to be the classic desperado,” in a 2001 interview with William T. Harper, author of “11 Days in Hell.”
Outside the Walls, Carrasco was widely known as perhaps the largest heroin dealer in South Texas.
Another eight to 10 inmates were also in the library when Carrasco took them hostage.
The guns used in the siege were smuggled in by a trusty that came under the control of Carrasco’s gang through a series of bribes and threats.
Lawrence James Hall was a houseboy in the home of an assistant director for the prison system.
Hall emptied a one-gallon can of peaches from the commissary and refilled it with ammunition. Getting guns inside the prison was trickier.
The trusty hollowed out a large ham and placed one .38 pistol inside. Two more .357s were hidden inside a box of spoiled meat. Since Hall frequently went through the gate between the prison and the administrator’s house, guards were convinced when the odor of rotting meat wafted out of the box. They didn’t bother searching all the way down to the bottom of the box where the handguns were hidden.
The three captors couldn’t control 80 hostages, so 65 were released in groups of five. That left 12 prison employees and four inmates on the third floor. Four of the hostages were women.
The employee hostages included: Aline House, Ann Fleming, Linda Woodman, Julia Standley, Von Beseda, Novella Pollard, Anthony Branch, Ron Robinson, Bertha Davis, Glennon Johnson, Father O’Brien and officer Bobby Heard.
House, Fleming, Woodman and Standley typically had lunch together outside the prison on Wednesdays. They had just returned from the weekly outing when Carrasco kicked off the riot. Two other female librarians, Naomi Rogers and Doris Thompson, were off that day. A third had decided to quit her job that morning — but other staff members didn’t know that yet, Harper said in his book.
Phyllis Fox normally would have been at work in the education center, but she happened to be visiting another unit. That staff shortage prompted House to call Fleming over to the Walls Unit to discuss a book order.
So she was at the Walls Unit, instead of her usual assignment at the Goree or Ferguson units.
Bruce Noviskie had been working at the prison for two years when the siege began. He said the Walls had a “country club” atmosphere — for a prison anyway. In a telephone interview, Noviskie said he and his coworkers didn’t have many confrontations with convicts.
He felt almost at home inside the Walls Unit. His father was the chief deputy for the Austin County Sheriff ‘s Office. Noviskie grew up in the living quarters of the jail. He said he had many encounters with Carrasco prior to the standoff, and he never caused any trouble.
“It was pretty safe for the employees and the inmates,” Noviskie said.
He and Lt. Wayne Scott were in the upper yard when the whistle blew. Inmates had to either go back to work, or to the housing area. Scott would eventually become the executive director of TDC.
“An inmate who walked up to Wayne and I said there was an inmate in the education center with a knife,” Noviskie said. “Wayne and I started up the ramps. We got to that last ramp that goes into the education building when another officer saw that the doors were chained shut.
“The three of us proceeded toward the doors. I recollect that the doors were a little bit ajar,” Noviskie said.
“I could see the chains from the outside. With the July sun, the doors were somewhat tinted,” he added.
“We were 10 to 15 feet from the door when Fred Carrasco stepped in front of the door. I could see that he had a pistol in his hand, and his arm was at a 45-degree angle across his chest,” Noviskie said. “His arm was distinctive against that white uniform.”
“He started shooting through the door at us,” Noviskie said.
The former correctional officer remembered there wasn’t much room to escape.
“With three grown 20-year-olds on a seven-foot wide ramp, there was no place to go but up or down.”
As the trio retreated down the ramp, Noviskie said Scott stepped on his hand. When the warden met with them in the front office, the three were asked if they were hurt.
“I told them my hand hurt a little where Wayne stepped on it. Then Molly, the warden’s assistant, pointed out that my foot was bleeding. That’s when I felt the pain from the gunshot. It was very superficial. We were very lucky,” Noviskie said.
Scott’s uniform shirt had a bullet hole in it after they retreated, but he wasn’t injured. Noviskie was sent to Huntsville Memorial Hospital where he was treated and released.
“I tried to come back to work after that, but Warden Husbands and (TDC Director) Jim Estelle told me to stay away,” he said.
He went back to work a few days later but remained on the day shift.
“On the night it all went down, my shift was over,” he said. “I didn’t know anything until the shootout came on the news.”
Noviskie said he knew all the hostages, especially Beseda.
“Carrasco was always being sent back to San Antonio on bench warrants. It was my responsibility to get him dressed in ‘free world’ clothes. Then I took him to the warden’s office where they processed him out.
“I knew the Father well, too. When he took on the role of hostage, that left someone else out. Father O’Brien, Bob Wiatt, the Texas Rangers and several others stepped up during that riot. I don’t think they got the praise they should have. I know the way they handled it — I never thought twice about my safety. If they had let the inmates leave, it would have been a different story.”
“A lot of people sacrificed so much,” Noviskie said. “My injury got me some recognition, but my foot was just in the wrong place. Fred could have seriously injured any of us. He just wanted to make a statement. I don’t think I was a target. He just wanted to make a statement that he was in charge.”
“That walk was the longest I have ever taken in my life,” O’Brien told author William T. Harper after the siege ended.
Husbands and Molly Stanley began burning up the phone lines, summoning TDC officials, Texas Rangers and others to Huntsville. Sharpshooters lined the roof of the hospital, 100 yards across the yard from the library. Officials also huddled to consider breaching the library building itself.
That plan was complicated by terra cotta Spanish tiles on the roof and the eight-inch thick masonry walls built on a frame of reinforced concrete. That construction also tended to magnify sounds — a factor that jangled the nerves of the hostages and their captors over the ensuing days.
The third floor could only be accessed through a single entryway. Five inches of concrete separate each of the three levels of the building.
A single mistake in construction did give the “good guys” one advantage. Thirty minutes after the standoff began, O’Brien walked to the third-floor library wearing black pants, a white T-shirt and handcuffs. What the convicts didn’t know was that the key to the handcuffs was in O’Brien’s pocket.
Hostage Linda Woodward was forced to act as Carrasco’s spokesman, media reports show. Carrasco demanded to be set free in exchange for sparing the lives of the hostages. He hoped Cuban dictator Fidel Castro would allow him to live on a sugar cane plantation.
He further demanded three walkie-talkies, three bulletproof vests and helmets with visor as well as weapons, ammunition, tailored suits and Nunn Bush shoes.
Five hours after seizing control of the library area, Carrasco released Father O’Brien with a list of demands. He set a one-hour deadline to provide the listed items. Prison officials sent in food, but did not comply with the other demands. Throughout the siege, Estelle and Husbands employed delay tactics and subterfuge.
Prison director Jim Estelle had an ironclad policy that he stated to every employee and contract worker. “If I ever come to a gate and you have any reason to suspect that I’m under duress or have been taken hostage and I order you to open the gate — if you open that gate you’ve done two things: You’ve signed my death warrant and you’ve been fired.”
Carrasco offered to trade 50 inmates for 15 pairs of handcuffs and a TV. Officials agreed to the trade, knowing that the TV would never work. When Carrasco discovered the TV was useless so far from Houston, he demanded a technician come connect it to cable. FBI agent Bob Wiatt pointed out that no technician wanted to risk becoming the 13th hostage.
Off the prison grounds, roadblocks were set up around the prison to divert the curious as well as anyone who might attempt to come to Carrasco’s assistance. DPS put helicopters on standby alert.
Carrasco told O’Brien his plan, and the priest passed it on to prison officials. The 10 civilian prison employees and one guard would remain hostages. Four inmates would stay, but the other 56 would be released in groups of five.
The four who came to be identified as “inmate hostages” were:
The civilian captives described the four as fellow hostages and praised their efforts to help — even though they were in awe of Carrasco.
The inmates then went to work fortifying their position and using the hostages as a human shield.
Correctional Officer Bobby Heard managed to squeeze his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame into the crawl space above the library’s false ceiling of acoustic tile. The inmates ultimately found him and labeled him “Number One.”
The captors kept him chained in the doorway until the female hostages convinced Carrasco to allow the hostages to take turns at the doorway post.
As Carrasco’s various deadlines came and went, the hostage leader would fly into screaming rages. The inmates had hidden food from the prison commissary throughout the library. Canned peaches, pears, canned meat, and Vienna sausages were placed behind books. They remained suspicious that Estelle would slip tranquilizers into the food.
It appeared to the hostages that the takeover was planned in great detail — the actual escape was not. Family members of the hostages gathered in the administration building where Windham staffers and community members did what they could to make the families’ wait bearable.
Hostages were allowed to call their families, but the content of those calls was scripted by the captors and often rehearsed. For the next 10 days, most of the communication between the captors and prison officials were handled through Carrasco’s attorney Ruben Montemayor.
Montemayor explained that no weapons would be delivered, and tried to convince him to put down his weapons and surrender.
When O’Brien carried messages back to prison officials, he also brought intelligence. Officials used any opportunity to stall each time Carrasco made demands. When he demanded clothing, they intentionally bought items that would not fit.
When hostage Glennon Johnson was forced to sit in the library doorway, he appeared to suffer a heart attack. Carrasco wanted the warden to send a doctor, but officials demurred. Finally, four inmates pushed a stretcher up the ramp. They moved the hostage to the prison hospital and he was transferred to Huntsville Memorial.
Aline House learned from that and faked a heart attack to win her release. Another one of the inmates burst through the glass doors and escaped, suffering severe cuts in the process.
Several times a day for each day the siege continued, the captors would threaten the hostages, often saying “I’m going to shoot you in 20 minutes.”
On the 10th day a summer thunderstorm knocked out power to the prison. In a breakthrough, Carrasco agreed to free all but four of the captives in exchange for an armored car they hoped to use in an escape.
Carrasco made it a point to move the hostages around the library each time O’Brien went to meet with the warden. Eventually, hostages and their captors settled into a routine.
After the siege, Woodman said it seemed like Carrasco had been waiting for something to happen. Prison officials theorized that the original escape plan called on Carrasco’s wife or other supporters to come to the rescue. But no one came.
For the first few days, Carrasco had the four male hostages sitting in the shattered doorway.
At about 6:15 p.m. Aug. 2, 1974, Carrasco released Linda Woodman and she spent three hours talking with prison officials.
Woodward was forced to act as Carrasco’s spokesman, media reports show. Carrasco demanded to be set free in exchange for sparing the lives of the 12 people being held in the library/classroom complex.
The Trojan Taco
Carrasco selected Father O’Brien to go inside the makeshift shield alongside the inmates. He told the women to choose three from among the group. Ann Fleming said all the women volunteered.
Father O’Brien later explained that the strategy was to maximize the number of survivors.
“If there was to be a shootout, we’d rather having it in the yard than in the library,” he said.
The three that ultimately went inside the shield had grown children — a criterion the women decided on themselves.
Construction on the improvised shield began on Day 4. Each day Carrasco presented new demands or altered prior ones. Prison officials stalled on each round of demands, asking for clarification or deliberately misinterpreting the demand.
On Day 10, after considerable discussion, the convicts released Linda Woodman.
Woodman was allowed to explain the convicts’ exit plan to officials, including details from the Trojan Taco’s test run. Carrasco initially planned to have six hostages inside with the three inmates, but there wasn’t enough room. The next test had four hostages with Father O’Brien in the rear, facing outward. O’Brien was given the job of being the “brakeman” as the contraption went down the ramp.
Cuevas would be in the front with Novella Pollard. Carrasco would be in the middle with Beseda, Dominguez would be behind them with Standley. A pair of improvised explosives would be taped to each side of the shield.
After officials were briefed, FBI agent Bob Wiatt suggested using fire hoses. Once the shield was toppled, the SWAT team members could jump in and physically subdue the convicts.
“We were all tired of this crap and ready to get it over with. We were sick of waiting,” said Jim Willett, a correctional officer at the time the siege. “Sick of serving inmates their meals in the housing quarters. Sick of having to eat our meals in the sultry heat. Sick of 12-hour shifts. Tired of the heat. Tired of no days off.”
Willett remained with TDC long after the siege. He was warden of the Walls Unit during the busiest period in history for the Execution Chamber. After retiring from the state, he ran the prison museum.
The captives made final phone calls with their families. Beseda joked about driving the armored car. Standley joked about running the armored car through the take-out window at a restaurant.
“I’ll see y'all soon,” Standley said.
Nearly all the hostages sent out instructions for their funeral, wills or other final bits of personal business. Even the optimistic Father O’Brien didn’t think he would survive the ordeal.
“I was resigned,” O’Brien said. “To me, it was over. I was dead.”
Carrasco sent a note to his attorney itemizing amounts of money confiscated from each of the hostages. He instructed Ruben Montemayor to reimburse them.
Carrasco also sent out a note to the hostages’ families saying all of them would be released unharmed.
After dark on Aug. 3, the inmates used an improvised shield made of two rolling chalkboards covered with thick law books to exit the library.
Eight hostages were handcuffed to the blackboards, with librarian Julia Standley, 43, and teacher Elizabeth Beseda, 47, inside the makeshift structure that was described as a “Trojan Taco” in media reports at the time.
As the convicts and their hostages made their way down the zig-zagging ramps, 13 state and federal law enforcement officers sprayed the shield with fire hoses.
Carrasco died of a single gunshot wound to the head from a .357 Magnum pistol, the same type gun Carrasco was carrying. Justice of the Peace J.W. Beeler ruled his death a suicide.
“But we will never know if they killed themselves or each other,” Beeler said. “You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.”
Beeler also said Carrasco and Dominguez killed the two female hostages handcuffed to them before turning the guns on themselves.
“We know if we’re taken hostage in the penitentiary, we’re legally dead,” Father O’Brien said after the standoff ended. “I think he’s a very, very sick — a very, very vicious man, and I think the world is better off that he’s not in it anymore.”
The siege ended in a hail of gunfire. Pools of blood splattered the ramp that was the only way in or out of the library. Explosives experts worked their way through the library looking for any improvised explosives that may have been left behind. Only the metal frames of the library doors remained — the glass panes had been shattered by bullets. The “Trojan Horse” remained at the foot of the Y-shaped ramp.
Carrasco and his two accomplices spent two days building the wedge-shaped shield.
The front had a hatch that could be raised or lowered with a length of electrical cord.
Justice of the Peace J. W. Beeler witnessed the shootout that ended the siege and held the inquest for the four people who died.
Beeler told the media that Mrs. Standley had been shot four times in the back at point-blank range. Mrs. Beseda was shot in the chest.
Another hostage, Ann Fleming, told her husband that the convicts fired the first shots. Her husband later advised reporters that his wife had no experience with guns, and was not able to discern whether the shots come from within the shield or outside it.
TDC Director Jim Estelle said Father O’Brien was shot by Cuevas.
Estelle was certain that several shots were fired within the contraption before his officers returned fire.
Cuevas was not injured in the shootout. Already serving 45 years for murder, Cuevas was charged with capital murder and was executed inside the same prison unit on May 23, 1991.
Media reports published on Aug. 5 listed Father O’Brien as being in fair condition at Huntsville Memorial Hospital.
Two other inmates, Martin Quiroz, 27, of Houston and Florencio Vera, 29, of San Antonio were also in fair condition.
Where are they now
Bob Wiatt died Aug. 13, 2010, in Bryan at age 84.
Linda Woodman became the warden of the Gatesville Unit when it housed female inmates and became the first woman to supervise a male inmate work crew. She died in January 2011.
Father O’Brien recovered from his wounds and continued to minister in the Rio Grande Valley Until 2001. He died Sept. 22, 2005.
Lawrence James Hall, the inmate who smuggled in the guns and ammunition, was already serving a life sentence as a six-time loser. He got another life sentence for his role in the siege and murders. He died in prison on April 6, 1993. Hall was 57.
Seventeen years after the siege ended, Ignacio Cuevas — the lone inmate to survive — was put to death May 23, 1991.