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Remembering the 1974 Carrasco Prison Siege

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Temperatures were rising (as they normally do) during the summer in Texas. July 24, 1974 appeared to be a typical Wednesday, but for those inside the gates of the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, that particular day will never be forgotten.

Around 1:00 p.m., inmate Fred Carrasco, who was serving a life sentence for the attempted murder of a San Antonio policeman, went into action. He and fellow inmates Ignacio Cuevas and Rudolfo Dominguez walked up a ramp to the third-story prison library, fired at two guards, and took over the library.

Seige-MosaicOriginally, there were around 80 people in the library, but Carrasco let more than 65 of them go. They kept 11 prison employees and four inmates as hostages. A suspect in the murder of dozens of people in Mexico and Texas, Carrasco had made plans for an escape.

From July 24 to August 3, Carrasco, Cuevas, and Dominguez were in control of the library in what was being called the “Siege on the Walls.” The guns and ammunition they used had been smuggled to the prison.

The prison warden and director of Texas Department of Corrections, with assistance from FBI agents and Texas Rangers, began negotiations.

Carrasco demanded a variety of items, including new tailored suits, dress shoes, toothpaste, cologne, walkie-talkies, and an armored car.

After 11 days, shortly before 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, the three decided to make their escape attempt.

Through using a makeshift shield made of mobile blackboards with legal books taped to it, Carrasco, Cuevas, and Dominguez, got inside with four hostages, and the other hostages surrounded the exterior of the shield. The group began moving toward the vehicle.  Texas Rangers and prison guards turned fire hoses on the group, but a malfunction in the hose gave the convicts time to fatally shoot two hostages. Prison officials returned fire, and Carrasco and one of his accomplices were killed.

Seige-Jim-WillettNow director of the Texas Prison Museum, Jim Willet was a prison guard during the siege and normally assigned to the picket–the guard towers of the Walls Unit. “It was me, a pistol, and a shotgun…and I prayed that no inmates tried to escape.” He would work 10:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m. “I was on the first corner, near the “Death House” as the execution chamber was known.  Willet spent more than 30 years with the Texas Department of Corrections, and even served for a period as warden of the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

The day of the siege, Willet was in the middle of taking classes at Sam Houston State University. He had just reported in to work when he was informed that there were hostages in the library.  “I had just switched over to the mid-afternoon shift. So I was to work 2:00 to 10:00 p.m.”

How did you find out about the ‘Siege?’

I was taking summer classes at Sam, and I had lived in some apartments close to the prison. I got out of class, went home and ate lunch. I got to work at 1:20…just 20 minutes past when it first started. I got there and was told that shots had been fired in the educational building where the library was located. No one knew who was up there. That was before we had the capabilities and technology that we do now.

What were you told to do that day?

Our supervisors met with us, and we were told to get the inmates back to their buildings and lock them down. No one was to leave or go outside. That turned out successful. The inmates were in their cells. We had to do everything that the prisoners would normally do, like take them their food. The inmates at first loved it. The guards were doing it all. But after the third day of the lock-down, even the inmates were getting a bit annoyed. It was sweltering hot, and we were dealing with locked inmates in cells, and the only meals we were able to give them were John Henrys…which is what we called sack lunches.

Seige-Walls-UnitWhat type of building was the educational building? Where was the library?

The third floor, which was the library floor of the educational building, had no windows, and there was only one way in or out. It was a fortress.

Seige-gunWhere did they get the guns and bullets?

A fellow inmate smuggled in the guns and ammunition in the center of a carved out ham and can of peaches. Certain inmates would work in the kitchens of the homes of prison personnel who worked in administration. Food was delivered to them daily. It is said that a ham was delivered to this one particular house, and later another ham was delivered. The inmate let one ham go bad, and that is the one where he had put the weapons. He brought it in a bag back to the prison and showed it to the guards…the ham smelled very badly. He was passed on through with it.

How long were you there?

After the third day, we were told to go home, change clothes, and come back. I went home, cleaned up, ate, and took a nap.

How were the prisoners taking it?

They weren’t happy after the third day. I was in the east building with about 300 inmates. One day, a paper airplane came floating down, and there was a note from one of the inmates. He was not serious, but he had written, “I am holding my roommate hostage until I get a hot meal.”

When you got back to the unit, what happened?

The warden was going to allow the inmates to go out of their cells into the general common areas of their buildings, but that was it. They were allowed to watch television and play dominoes.

Seige-HandcuffsToward the end of the ‘siege,’ did anything happen different in the building you were in?

Well, we were told to stay away from the windows. We knew something was happening, but didn’t know what. I got out and went to a window to see. I really couldn’t see anything. There was no one in the yard. Someone spotted me, and my supervisor pulled me back.

Seige-Helmet

Bullet-proof helmet made for Carrasco per his demand. He fired one shot above the eye slot to insure it would stop a bullet

What happened next?

Right after dark, we heard gunshots. They almost sounded like fireworks going off.  And then, (pausing), it went completely silent. I was anxious to see what was going on. I begged my supervisor to let me go. When I got outside and looked toward the building, it was like a sea of blood had encompassed the yard. There was the armored car, and bodies lying around. Carrasco and Dominguez were dead. Cuevas was laying there. He was trying to fool them, because they discovered he was not dead. They were taking Chaplain Fr. Joseph O’Brien and another to the hospital. The water and blood had mixed together. Carrasco and Dominguez lay on the ramp. We were told to get the clothes off of them. Then we were told to go through the library and the shield and gather all of the belongings and evidence, and we were told to lock it up in the safe.

Did the search happen that night?

Some of it was done that night, but we were told to go home and rest, and then be back in the morning and search the place.

What was going on in your mind during all of this?

I never thought that a convict would be able to get a gun and turn a gun on any of us. Of course, I was scared. Who wouldn’t have been? But, we had a job to do, and no other choice but to do it.

After the incident, were changes made to prevent such things happening again?

Of course. Security was increased. Protocols were put into place that hadn’t been before like sign-ins and ways to monitor where prison employees were and prisoners were at all times.

Seige-Warden-BookWith this being the 40th anniversary of the siege, what stands out in your mind about it?

It has been a long time, and some of the names of people aren’t easy to remember. The Siege on the Walls Unit is the longest prison siege to this date, and yet, there was not much coverage of the event. Nixon was being convicted and was going to resign. Even in our local papers, that got the headlines.

The Siege on the Walls Unit in Huntsville ended on Aug. 3, 1974 – 11 days after it began, thus making it the longest reported prison siege in history. Remarkably, although sadly, only two hostages died during the incident, along with two of their captors – Fred Carrasco and Rudy Dominguez. According to reports, Carrasco shot himself. The third captor, Ignacio Cuevas, was executed on May 23, 1991 after receiving a death sentence from the Texas Department of Corrections in 1975. 

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