Covering Tracks

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.

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.

Now, people involved in the standoff say, the inmates only had a radio. They did not have access to TV or newspapers.

Besides remaining mum on the true details of the standoff, Schriro and Napolitano squelched information on the incidents involving the inmates before the prison tower was taken over.

After the second hostage was released, some facts were released about how the two inmates had assaulted kitchen workers and corrections officers and stolen one of the officers' uniforms to bluff their way into the guard tower. But missing from the accounts was any timeline of events.

That's convenient. Because with all the assaults that apparently took place, including one rape, it seems unfathomable that armed guards did not have time to respond and stop the taking of the tower by two men.

Numerous other questions remained unanswered about how security collapsed so severely to allow two cons into the tower, says Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground, a prison-reform group.

"It's appalling how much information is not getting to the public," she says.

"This whole thing has been a chilling manipulation of the entire news media," Hamm says. "Beyond the governor and the DOC officials, everybody in the news media should hang their heads in shame."

Don't expect much from the planned investigation of the incident. For one, Schriro has already made it clear what she intends to conclude from any such probe.

"Make no mistake," Schriro announced the day the last hostage was released. "This was the mistake of two inmates and two inmates only."

Napolitano proclaimed a couple of days later that the investigation will be led by one of her chief aides, Dennis Burke.

"This is like George Bush and Tony Blair investigating whether there was good reason to go to war with Iraq," Hamm says. "To some degree, it's all the people involved investigating themselves."

Which means that any such examination should be led by federal investigators with no political stake in the outcome.

Even as beginners, we know that any independent accounting of this standoff will come to several unsavory conclusions:

That our prison system is in such disarray that it can protect neither the public nor its own employees from the inmates within.

That information was kept from the media and public not to protect hostages, but to protect politicians.

That when critical situations arise, it is not the professionals in law enforcement who call the shots, it's once again the politicians.

When any real accounting of events is completed, Hamm believes, the episode will not be viewed as a political victory for Schriro and Napolitano.

"It's more likely," Hamm contends, "that they will be remembered for the longest prison scandal in the history of the United States."

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Robert Nelson