Covering Tracks

State officials made dubious decisions and then whitewashed their actions

As Governor Janet Napolitano and Department of Corrections officials portrayed it, the end of the 15-day standoff at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis was a triumphant love fest. The remaining hostage was released unharmed into the arms of the governor, the result of state officials' brilliant strategy of subtle negotiation and a prolonged waiting game.

"Thanks for not rushing the tower," Napolitano said the freed hostage told DOC director Dora Schriro moments after she was freed. "They would have killed me."

Wow. If that ain't made for TV.

DOC director Dora Schriro
DOC director Dora Schriro

That release scene and the fawning thanks to top officials would suggest an unmitigated success. But other information now coming from those on the front line -- who spent more than two weeks shaking their heads at Dora Schriro's brilliant strategy -- suggests that the state's handling of the hostage situation is more shameful than successful.

Throughout the standoff, the DOC and the Governor's Office refused to release information on the way the situation was being handled. They wouldn't say anything about the condition of the female hostage other than that she "appeared unharmed" and was doing well. They said the same thing about a second male hostage who was released after eight days.

Who were these convicts and what were they in for? DOC officials wouldn't say.

What did the hostage takers want? What was the state giving them? No comment.

But simply saying the female hostage was unharmed and doing well in the hands of two people the public knew nothing about just happened to support the state's strategy of doing nothing as the days rolled on.

Hey, the hostage is okay. Why would we want to force the issue?

Where were the media? Held at bay across Highway 85. The press wasn't even allowed on the prison grounds. The sad thing is the reporters covering this major news story didn't seem to mind.

On Sunday night, tears in her eyes, Schriro even thanked the Valley's media for being "on our team."

The team of DOC officials and their media lapdogs may not have blood on their hands. But they do have rape on them.

The press, watching through the long lenses from the desert half a mile away, learned eventually what DOC officials, negotiators and a collection of Valley SWAT teams knew from the beginning:

Which was that the female hostage had been sexually assaulted by one of the hostage takers.

It was also known that this same inmate had sexually assaulted a prison kitchen worker before joining his partner in the prison's guard tower.

And everyone knew who the two inmates were. One, Ricky Wassenaar, was considered a violent psychopath; the other one, Steven Coy, the man who raped the kitchen worker, was serving a 175-year sentence for aggravated assault and rape.

On Monday, 16 days after they knew the truth, DOC officials finally confirmed that the female hostage had been sexually assaulted.

Knowing these facts from the beginning, most of the police tactical personnel on site at the prison standoff desperately wanted orders to shoot the inmates. Later, SWAT teams had a plan in place to raid the tower using explosives and high-powered rifles capable of penetrating the tower's bulletproof glass. They believed they could take the tower without injuring the hostages.

Instead, DOC Director Schriro, who had quickly taken total command of the operation, made it clear there would be no tactical response.

"It was disgusting, sickening, to be waiting through 12-hour shifts and wondering what was going on and knowing what was probably happening to that woman," says one tactical expert who was involved in the standoff.

You simply must act when you know someone is in that kind of danger, law enforcement experts say.

The professionals whose job it is to handle these sorts of things wonder why Schriro, a political appointee with no experience in tactics or negotiations, was allowed to command the situation. Their point: Leave the hostage rescue to the people who are trained to rescue hostages, people who are not motivated by politics and public relations.

Basically, there is a reason the Lewis prison standoff was the longest in modern U.S. prison history. No other law enforcement agency and its negotiators have ever allowed a situation to go on this long.

Tactical experts say that the longer a standoff goes on, the more problems you have. The hostage takers are given time to set booby traps, cover windows and make plans. And you never wait when it is known a hostage is being violently assaulted with each passing day.

Another severe problem with Schriro and Napolitano's strategy: The inmates won.

Two vicious scumbags were allowed to hang out for more than two weeks with all the food and sex they wanted. Is this not a vacation when one is sitting for life in a Level 4 prison? Then, the inmates got what they wanted at the end. They both were shipped off to prisons closer to their homes in Michigan and Maine.

It's a bad message to other inmates with nothing to lose.

It's ludicrous, too, to buy Schriro and Napolitano's contentions that giving any details of the standoff, including facts about those involved, would damage the negotiations. DOC officials told reporters that they believed the two inmates had a radio and a television and that other inmates in the prison yard could possibly yell up information they gleaned from print, radio or TV.

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