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'I'll Die Before I Go Back,' Cubans Said : Hostages Sensed Trouble Before Inmate Riot Began

December 01, 1987|RON HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

OAKDALE, La. — From the moment word reached the federal detention center here of the government's plan to deport Cuban detainees back to their native land, the correction officers who later became hostages knew that trouble lay ahead.

"You could feel the tension increase inside," said Donald Thompson, one of the 28 federal officers who were taken hostage by the Cubans when they took over the correction center Nov. 21.

"Some of them said they would go back. But a lot of them kept saying: 'I'll die before I go back to Cuba.' "

Leon Smith, one of the correction officers, sensed something different during dinner Saturday--the night of the takeover--when a lot of inmates skipped the meal "and they normally have very good appetites."

"And I noticed them dressing real heavy and putting on some additional clothes," he said.

Not long after, the riot was on. The prisoners made a break for the entrance at 7 p.m. Saturday but were repelled and fell back into the compound. The guards then retreated to designated safe areas until help could arrive.

"But there was no help coming," Smith said.

The prisoners came at them, banging against the locked doors.

One of the guards, Mandy Cedillos, tried to hide in a ceiling.

"The only thing we had for our defense was we grabbed some broomstick handles," he said.

"They came through the walls because they couldn't knock down the doors. I guess they used hammers. When they came through the walls they were laughing. They knew they had us scared. They looked like gremlins."

Cedillos was stabbed in the neck Friday by an inmate who is a mental patient and was released by the Cubans. He was not seriously hurt.

"They kept tellings us: 'Man, don't worry. We're not going to hurt you,' " Cedillos said, "and they didn't."

But the hostages did not always know that, especially during the early going.

That first night they marched one of them, Michael Grimes, toward the gate to test the will of prison officials outside. A machete was pressed to his throat.

"They told him they weren't going to hurt him," Thompson said. "They just wanted to see what would happen."

Prison officials fired a warning shot, Thompson said, and the detainees retreated with Grimes. Then they took Smith outside to talk to the warden, and the hostages heard their first encouraging words.

"The warden gave us his word that at no point and time during this crisis, however long it took, he was not going to have anyone infiltrate the institution that would jeopardize our lives," Smith said. "This is what kept me going."

Things, however, took a quick turn for the worse later that first night when a television reporter speculated on a 10 p.m. newscast that police were going to rush the center at dawn.

"That was one of the times I thought I was going to die," Thompson said. "They (the Cuban detainees) said if they did that, they would kill us.

"They started making more weapons with a grinder they got out of mechanical services," he said. "That's when I wrote my farewell letter. We were all pretty upset that they would say something like that on TV."

There was no raid and the next morning the detainees put a radio in Thompson's hand and told him to deliver their demands.

"They wanted buses to take them out," he said. "There were three guys shouting at me and telling me what to say. That was the only thing I could understand.

"They said if the buses weren't there by 11 a.m., they would hurt somebody."

The buses never came and the long wait was on.

While an army of law enforcement officers and SWAT teams massed outside the prison, the inmates devised an impressive system inside the 48-acre compound.

Internal security police were assigned to ensure the hostages' safety.

"All of the other detainees had to be cleared by them before they could see us," Thompson said.

And when some detainees did get out of hand, "they would squash it right there . . . handcuff them and lock 'em up," Smith said.

"I'll tell you one thing," Thompson said, "those detainees saved Mandy's life" by rescuing him from the mental patient who had attacked him.

The Cubans also were well organized. Detainees were stationed all around the perimeter of the facility. Runners relayed messages after the Cubans' radio batteries had gone dead.

"They monitored everything, the entire compound," Smith said. "It didn't take them long to get communication from one point to another in a short period of time. I found that extraordinary too."

"They had certain people protecting us," Thompson said, "certain people cooking for us. They had a day shift and a night shift."

"When they ate, we ate," Smith said. "When they drank, we drank."

But what they ate was not always so appetizing.

"The first night they gave us meat," Thompson said. "They gave us ice cream and candy bars. But nobody had an appetite.

"After that it was wieners and wieners and more wieners. I guess they did the best they could."

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