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'Ready to die?' Transcripts Reveal Horror of Ariz. Hostage Ordeal

PDF document: Transcript of interview with female corrections officer.
(Contains graphic details and language. The news media blacked out the name of the corrections officer and some expletives. County officials blacked out the names of medications.)

By Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic

On Day 7 she was handcuffed in the watchtower at Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, a sexual-assault victim and hostage expecting to die at the hands of two felons. Then came word that her fellow captive, Corrections Officer Jason Auch, would be set free. And this is what went through her mind: "I didn't get myself into this. I should be the one that's leaving. . . I'm a female. Let me go, you know. . .

"But I accepted it," the corrections officer told investigators later. "Auch's a good guy. He's young. He's got his life ahead of him. And for some reason, God wanted me there. All I could remember is: Please don't rush the tower. We can talk this out. I can come out of here alive."

The woman did get out alive, set free when inmates Ricky Wassenaar, 40, and Steven Coy, 39, surrendered. She survived the longest prison hostage standoff in U.S. history. But it was a harrowing, horrible 15 days. Her name is being withheld by The Arizona Republic because she is a sexual-assault victim.

At one point in the tower, she recalled, Wassenaar got so mad at authorities that "he took the shotgun and he looked at Auch and said, 'You're dying first. Are you ready to die?' And Auch said, 'Can I ask one thing? . . . Shoot me in the head. Make it quick.' "

Then Wassenaar turned to the woman and said, "You ready to die?"

Somehow, Auch broke the tension by asking if he could just jump off the tower, rather than take a bullet. Wassenaar burst into laughter.

The woman's first-person account of the ordeal was released Thursday by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office as part of a Department of Corrections report that includes graphic violence and disturbing new revelations about prison security failures.

According to officers and inmates interviewed in the report:

  • One officer assigned to watch video monitors was busy filling out administrative papers during the breakout attempt.

  • Repeated security checks by phone and radio failed because officers ignored them or the inmates thwarted them. No emergency call was sounded for nearly two hours because the two inmates managed to confound the system.

  • An officer who noticed the female officer and Auch handcuffed on the tower's bottom floor pounded on the window and screamed, "Hey, answer your radio!" When there was no response, he walked away thinking the two were engaged in "horseplay."

  • Even after a call for help went out, several officers were slow in responding because they thought it was a drill.

    The investigative report and transcripts were released by Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley after DOC officials spent days fighting public records requests from the media, refusing to divulge exactly how the saga began and what happened.

    One example: The report notes that inmate medications are stored in the yard tower for dispensing by nurses. On the first day of the standoff, diabetic inmates began going into insulin shock because they could not get their medication. Roommates in the locked-down Morey Unit went on a rampage, yelling and banging on cell doors to get attention.

    The report says two cell doors were kicked open in the process, and one prisoner marched to the control room where he demanded emergency care for his buddy. He also warned an officer that if help didn't arrive, other prisoners "were going to pop their doors, come over and kill him."

    Another example: An officer assigned to monitor video cameras in the Morey Unit told investigators he didn't notice anything on the screens before the emergency radio call. "He said he wasn't paying much attention at the time because he was attempting to complete administrative paperwork," the report notes. Like others, the video officer initially thought the first call for help signified a practice session. Then a sergeant screamed into the radio, "This is not a drill!"

    Inmates' 'lucky day'

    The escape attempt began with an assault in the prison kitchen, where Wassenaar attempted to recruit about 15 other prisoners, announcing, "This is our lucky day, guys. We are getting out of here." He got no takers.

    Wassenaar put on an officer's uniform, shaved, and conned his way into the watchtower. According to the female officer, Auch opened the gate at the sight of that uniform, and she asked who was coming upstairs. "He goes, 'Oh, I don't know,' and I just kind of looked at him because it didn't feel right."

    Seconds later, Wassenaar slammed Auch's head with a long kitchen stirring paddle, leaving him bloody and semiconscious, then beat the female officer into submission.

    Auch, whose interview transcript also was released, explained why he advised Wassenaar on how to use weapons in the tower arsenal: "We were always trained that if we were indeed in a hostage situation to follow every order exactly . . . and I was not about ready to go against his order and find out how far he wanted to go."

    Coy, who had remained in the kitchen, raped a civilian female and took another officer hostage. Then, as Coy fought with officers in the prison yard, witnesses say Wassenaar fired up to 15 shots with a rifle.

    In the administration building, Capt. Michael Forbeck only knew that inmates held the tower and were blasting away. According to the DOC report, Forbeck expected gun-wielding prisoners to rush the compound at any minute. He had shotguns and ammunition distributed to all available officers, sent two snipers to a rooftop, ordered a prisonwide lockdown and called for support from Buckeye police and sheriff's deputies.

    The assault never came. Instead, Wassenaar made a phone call to Capt. Barbara Savage: "Inmate Wassenaar first apologized for getting her up so early in the morning and was very respectful," the report says. "He told her that Officer Auch had a head injury and, although the bleeding had stopped, he was going in and out of consciousness and needed medical attention and he wanted to trade a lieutenant for Officer Auch." When Savage declined, Wassenaar said, "Well, give me a sergeant, give me a sergeant, Captain." Then he chuckled and continued, "Well, you know we are getting pretty hungry down here. I'd like a pizza delivered right to the door. In fact, make that two pizzas and a helicopter."

    As marksmen were deployed, Wassenaar's voice came over a prison radio: "If your sniper is going to take us out, he better get us both because your officers will be next. You will have two dead officers up here."

    In the tower, the female officer was living a correctional officer's nightmare. Handcuffs cut into her wrists, she was beaten, sexually abused, possibly drugged and repeatedly threatened with death.

    Yet, in interview transcripts, she comes off as courageous, thoughtful, humorous and at times heroic. The woman's account, given to a DOC investigator just hours after her Feb. 1 release, began with the words, "Let's get it over with."

    She described how minutes turned into hours and then days. She laughed telling how she spread her blood around the tower to make sure there was plenty of DNA evidence.

    The woman told Auch about her own escape plan: "I said I got one of the cuffs loose. If they (inmates) both go to sleep, I can grab a gun and shoot them both. . . . I said, 'Shall I go for it?' He's like, 'No, don't.' I said, 'Well, we're dead already.' "

    Later, as Auch was released, she gave him a message to her family: "You tell 'em that I love 'em. . . . I've got their pictures right next to my heart."

    When Auch was released on Day 7, he told investigators how the captors had nearly cut off the woman's little finger because negotiators wouldn't meet a demand for food.

    'A blaze of glory'

    Inmate names are redacted from the crime report, but many of those interviewed described Coy as a quiet follower and tattoo artist. Wassenaar, by contrast, had the reputation of a mean, egotistical con who served as jailhouse lawyer and sports bookie. Several said he lost a recent appeal on his case and may have wanted to commit "suicide by cop."

    Except for one inmate who reported hearing Wassenaar whisper about a "control room" and "killing an officer," no one acknowledged any hint of an escape plot.

    "If any inmate tells you that (he) knew this was coming, they're full of (expletive)," d one prisoner noted. "But I'm telling you, take out Rooster (Wassenaar) and Pony (Coy) will give up. Rooster is a wild card. He's wound tight. Pony doesn't want to die, but Rooster would want to go out in a blaze of glory."

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