New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot
Part Three: The Devil’s Butcher Shop
On February 3rd, 1980, the riot at the New Mexico State Pen carried on into its second full day. Negotiations continued, but in the fallout of the most brutal riot in American history, questions would continue to linger…
As the sun rose on February 3rd, 1980, it cast an ominous glow over the New Mexico State Penitentiary - a large, gated facility right on the outskirts of Santa Fe.
Smoke continued to spill out of the facility, but it appeared as if the fires inside were finally burning down. However, an unmistakable odor continued to hang in the air - which many of the inmates, law enforcement, authorities, and prison officials would be unable to shake in the years to come.
Surrounding the prison were dozens upon dozens of Nationals Guardsmen and police officers, who had established a perimeter. Armed with rifles and other munitions, they were prepared to maintain order should push come to shove. Throughout the night, many of them had stood vigil, waiting for the men inside the prison to attempt anything. They had received conflicting reports about whether they were to storm the prison, but - for the time being - they just had to wait and see.
In the courtyard of the penitentiary were hundreds of men - prisoners that had either escaped out of the facility itself, or been moved out because of injuries they had obtained. The prior night, they had been given thin blankets meant to provide some semblance of warmth, but had to huddle together inside the cramped accommodations allowed them until the violent uprising that turned their housing units into disarray was ended.
Inside the prison were the last remnants of a vicious prison riot that had taken an untold number of lives, and still held more than a handful of prison guards captive. Prison officials were waiting until sunrise to continue their negotiations, but were eager for this act of rebellion to be a thing of the past.
Eventually it would. The riot would eventually be brought to a close, but many questions - as well as consequences of the brutal violence - continue to linger to this day.
This is part three of the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot.
A total head count conducted by the National Guard put roughly eight-hundred convicts in the penitentiary's courtyard that morning; meaning that there were anywhere between three-hundred and four-hundred inmates remaining inside the New Mexico State Penitentiary, as well as close to ten hostages.
This gave law enforcement and prison officials a rough idea of the struggle that lay ahead of them, as they desperately continued to draw up plans to gain control of the prison.
Just before dawn - on the morning of February 3rd, 1980 - Deputy Warden Robert Montoya and his mentor, Deputy Secretary of Corrections Felix Rodriguez, returned to the command post. Climbing the steps to Tower One, they continued their communications with the inmate nicknamed "Chopper One" - the man that had named himself the lead negotiator for the inmates.
Together, these two men asked "Chopper One" how many stretchers would be needed. They wanted to plan accordingly. The inmate negotiator responded ominously, simply stating:
Inside the prison, chaos and disorder were descriptors used to describe the environment that remained. Violent inmates were not only continuing to patrol the hallways, but were guarding the exit points - trying to ensure that nobody left.
Others were stuck inside, having to hole up inside cellblocks or dormitories, where they tried to avoid the carnage that waited for them in the corridors. According to one inmate:
"Sunday morning, there were bodies everywhere."
Just after sunrise, as the negotiations between prison officials and inmates started up again, action began to stir inside the facility.
Corrections Officers Victor Gallegas - who had been one of the first prison guards taken captive, more than 24 hours beforehand - was smuggled out of the prison by some sympathetic inmates.
Once outside and free, he told officials about Captain Roybal - with whom he had shared a cell inside the prison, as hostages. He described the older man facing health complications that sounded like a mild heart attack, and Captain Roybal's name was given top priority in the ongoing negotiations.
A short time later, Captain Greg Roybal was released from the facility, when it began to dawn on inmates that he was at a significant risk of passing away without proper medical help. Upon his release, he was flown to the nearby St. Vincent Hospital, where he was quickly stabilized and given treatment.
Following the release of Captain Roybal was the release of another of the hostages, as well as a second morning escape. A group of inmates that had fled the prison allowed this prison guard into their midst, dressing them up like a prisoner and praying that nobody would notice. Surprisingly, this tactic worked for the third time in the riot.
The amount of hostages held by the rioting inmates was beginning to dwindle, and with it was the number of prisoners overall. Several of the inmates that had been frozen in fear inside their dormitories were beginning to make good on their own escapes. This included W.G. Stone, who had been locked up in C-1 ("The Old Man's Dormitory") since the outbreak of the riot.
Finally, after more than thirty hours inside, Stone had decided to escape the mayhem. He grabbed an unconscious inmate, and made his way to the exit. There, other convicts were attempting to keep inmates from escaping, but - under the guise of getting the unconscious man treatment - W.G. Stone made his escape. Once free, he gave the unconscious man over to medical personnel, and then went through a brief interrogation before being placed in the perimeter fence alongside the other inmates.
There, he would find that the courtyard accommodations were little more than a lawless prison of their own. Instead of the thousand or so inmates being cordoned off into dormitories and cellblocks, they had simply been placed in a large cage. Order was maintained at the edges - where National Guardsmen patrolled, and even quelled a large fight between black and Hispanic inmates at around noon. But the interior of the courtyard - where the vast majority of the inmates remained, including dozens of those that had participating in the riot itself - was chock-full of violence, in all of its forms.
The negotiations continued on into that afternoon, with the conflict escalating as the number of prisoners inside continued to dwindle.
Those that remained were the most violent and emboldened of the bunch: the original instigators of the riot - those that were possibly looking at lengthy sentences due to their actions. They had the most to lose, and were likely to hold out for as long as they possibly could.
Throughout the negotiations, these men continued to place the blame for the riot at the feet of the men they were negotiating with: Deputy Warden Robert Montoya; as well as ex-Warden and current-Deputy Secretary of Corrections, Felix Rodriguez.
At around noon on Sunday, as wounded and surrendering prisoners continued to slowly spill out into the courtyard, a handful of these inmates brought out a body on a stretcher. The body was that of Paulina Paul: a mentally-disturbed inmate that had been one of the dozen killed inside the Cellblock 4 massacre. If you recall back to the last episode, he had been set up by a couple of Aryan Brotherhood members, and beheaded.
His body, which was brought out on a stretcher, had his severed head placed between his legs. One of the prisoners carrying the stretcher, disguised behind a makeshift bandanna, gave a warning to the prison officials:
"If you don't get media in here soon, the next one we shove out will be one of your guards and he'll be just like him."
There were still a couple of guards being held captive at this point in time, so this threat didn't fall on deaf ears. Prison officials began arranging for members of the media to be present in the next round of negotiating, which would take place early that afternoon.
Legendary local newsman Ernie Mills, who had a long and storied history of working on news stories around New Mexico, was present during this afternoon negotiating session. At one point, he even became the impromptu moderator of the discussions, since he was one of the few voices that could be trusted to hear out every side of the issue.
A handful of prisoners - which included Lonnie Duran, Vincent Candelaria, and Kedrick Duran (of no relation to Lonnie) - spoke to reporters during this session. Here, they voiced their demands to lift the riot, and expressed concern over the potential follow-through from prison officials. After all, the New Mexico Federal Court system had demanded wholesale change for the Penitentiary in the preceding years, but those court orders had gone unenforced. The prison administration had given no effort to implement those changes, and had seemingly faced no consequences in either refusing to do so, or ignoring them entirely.
These three inmates, who had long been seeking changes in the penitentiary's rules and regulations, had appointed themselves negotiators in the discussions. However, they knew that they were painting a target on their back among some of the more violent inmates, who would view them as traitors for merely discussing an end to the riot. As such, these three denied having any involvement in the violent uprising, and asked to be transferred to out-of-state prisons to finish their sentences.
It was later pointed out by reporters in-attendance that some of these negotiating inmates had incredibly slurred speech during the negotiations, hinting at either a comedown from drug use or a lack of sleep. Either was possible.
Eventually, these men were able to broker a peace with prison officials, and negotiated terms with none other than Felix Rodriguez - the ex-warden of the penitentiary, who was still well-liked and revered by inmates, despite leaving that position half-a-decade beforehand.
Within an hour, most of the remaining inmates came out and surrendered to authorities. With them were the last two hostages, which included Corrections Officer Larry Mendoza.
After being held hostage for more than twenty-four hours, Mendoza was visibly shaken by the ordeal. As he came walking out of the penitentiary a free man, a reporter asked him what it was like inside. Mendoza began to respond, but then froze - seemingly caught up in the moment. He would break down into tears, unable to speak for minutes afterwards.
Despite the overall surrender of the facility back to state authorities, there were several stragglers that refused to give up ground so easily.
These were the violent inmates, who knew that they would likely be facing harsh penalties for their role in the riot. Over the two-way radio channel, authorities could hear inmates inside, discussing plans to go out swinging - giving up their own lives in the process. These inmates - numbering around one-hundred in total - threatened to continue the riot as long as possible and resist from the interior of the prison.
This led to a final siege of roughly two dozen SWAT officers. With no more hostages, there was no more reason to pull any punches. Forces were given the okay to use lethal force if necessary, but to end the crisis as peacefully as possible.
The SWAT officers began their siege early that afternoon, followed closely by National Guardsmen. Thankfully, they were able to end the riot with no more inmate deaths, managing to neutralize the remaining rioters with non-lethal methods. These men were then paraded out to the courtyard, where some were thrown into the cage that others had been held in for hours - where the remaining prisoners were being temporarily housed.
Others were held in isolated cages, where they would undergo interrogations as prison officials continued trying to learn about the main instigators and leaders of the riot.
Despite the riot itself coming to an end, the cleanup effort was just beginning.
The National Guard, who had helped nullify the last of the rioters, were in charge of leading the cleanup effort, which would prove to be incredibly taxing - not only physically, but emotionally.
One National Guardsman, who had to pitch in on this cleanup effort, described the effect the cleanup had on him and his fellow Guardsmen:
"I was in 'Nam for two years, and like I've seen some hellacious sights over there, and it's my personal opinion and belief that these inmates out here made 'Nam look like a playpen."
These National Guardsmen described the carnage left behind in Cellblock 4 as being the worst, by far - not only the sight of it, but the stench, which would remain for some time.
Another member of the National Guard - a female medic - would describe Cellblock 4 as being nothing but "ashes and pelvic bones." According to her, she would never forget the smell for as long as she lived.
Several members of the National Guard would require psychological counseling in the coming weeks, months, and years. Such was the case of Floyd Garcia, a National Guardsman that was sent to assist in the cleanup effort. Garcia was assigned to the 3631st Automotive Repair Unit of the state National Guard, and was just 20 years old at the time of the riot.
"I suffered nightmares, flashbacks. It affected my relationship with my family, my social relationships. It hurt me... I haven't even been able to barbecue since the riot, because the smell brings me back to the smell of burning flesh at the riot."
The interior of the prison was so badly covered in blood and corpses that State Senator Manny Aragon - who, earlier, had helped negotiate the release of hostages - could not even go inside. That was an opinion shared by many, who struggled to make sense of the hellscape the state penitentiary had become.
The process of figuring out temporary housing for the inmates currently detained in the prison's courtyard would take days, as National Guardsmen led the cleanup effort of the facility. To make matters more complicated, a number of inmates were in need of medical attention, which would be doled out on a case-by-case basis.
Approximately two-hundred inmates were wounded, with more than 100 requiring hospitalization - for either vicious beatings or rapes they had received over the course of the riot. Additionally, more than 90 had gone through drug overdoses, which would require monitoring by health care professionals in the coming days.
These wounded prisoners would be slowly sent out to hospitals in the region, including those in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and even some being transported to Las Vegas.
The remaining inmates - numbering around a thousand in total - would be left out in the prison courtyard for three days, which were described as "miserable" by most. The temperature continued to remain near-freezing, and these prisoners received only basic provisions. In addition, violent assaults and rapes continued in the inmate population over the next few days, as they awaited transfer to other facilities.
On February 4th, 1980 - the Monday after the riot - fifteen convicts were shipped out from the courtyard to regional St. Francis Hospital, as a result of overnight beatings, stabbings, and one severe gang rape. This is the type of violence that continued to linger in this temporary prison camp.
The gruesome carnage inside the prison was quickly dealt with by National Guardsmen, who helped restore the prison into working order one cellblock and dormitory at a time. As they did their best to transport the corpses within and clean up the carnage within, prisoners were sent back inside, to be temporarily lodged until more-permanent accommodations could be made.
Some inmates refused to go back inside, to the dormitories, where they feared they'd be targeted by others for payback. This included some of the inmates that had quickly surrendered to police in the riots, or expressed apathy towards the rioters. Despite their pleas, they were forced into compliance by prison guards and law enforcement, and sent back into the state pen.
This fear was felt by many in the prison population, as many members of the "execution squads" - who had roamed the prison with weapons just days beforehand, looking for inmates to assault and kill - were now back in General Population. A handful of those that were known to prison officials were sent to be housed in the relatively-undamaged Cellblock 6, but the others remained un-quarantined; seemingly free of any consequence.
Back inside the state penitentiary, prisoners had to deal with many of the same issues that had plagued them before the riot: irregular water access, supervised access to toilets, limited exercise and visitation, and a halt on all mail privileges for months afterwards.
Over the coming weeks, many inmates would be shipped out to other institutions - many of which were in other states entirely.
90 inmates were sent to Oklahoma, while 148 were shipped to the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. 79 were sent to Georgia, while 30 were shipped to Colorado and 14 sent to Arizona.
Of the 14 men transported to Arizona, 10 were sent back when it was discovered that New Mexico officials had tried to hide their criminal records. It appeared to Arizona that New Mexico had falsified documents in an attempt to ship out violent convicts, unnecessarily labeling them as "snitches" in need of Isolation or Segregation.
This was an issue that would proliferate many cases in the wake of the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot, as the staff had to recreate entire behavior reports and parole/criminal records from the ground up. They would have to rely on staff memory and outside offices in order to rebuild their documentation, because virtually every shred of paper inside the prison had been intentionally burned by inmates.
Following the brutal riot, many of the inmates' families would not receive word about their relatives for weeks - or months - after the fact.
This included those that had perished in the riot. Those loved ones would have to wait until the reports were published by authorities or the media, as correspondence with the inmates was mostly shut off for weeks after the riot came to a close.
The final report of the riot was not finished until March 6th, 1980 - more than a month later - and even that relied off of incomplete records. Prison officials and outside sources had tried their best to recover what documentation they had lost, but it would prove to be impossible. Some records didn't have any electronic or digital backup - this was 1980 after all - and many of the computer records in the prison were days, if not weeks, out-of-date.
As the National Guard had conducted their cleanup of the facility, New Mexico's chief Medical Investigator, Dr. James Weston, had his office called upon to lead the forensic side of things. He was the state's medical examiner, who was highly-esteemed in his field. In fact, he had been one of the few medical experts that had conducted the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy more than a decade prior, and had helped establish New Mexico's highest pathology offices. One colleague respectfully described him as "one of the grand masters of forensic pathology."
As part of this investigation, the Office of the Medical Investigator had to enact its "disaster plan" for the first time in state history. This happened when there were "3 or more bodies that cannot be visually identified because the remains are skeletonized, badly decomposed, burned or mutilated."
An academic anthropologist from a nearby university was called in to assist in the effort to obtain and identify the remains of victims inside the building. These were not corpses, mind you, but remains - those had that been dismembered and/or burned in the riot. The corpses had already been cleared out of the facility, but more on that in a bit.
This anthropologist, along with eleven students, began sifting through the carnage of the gymnasium - which, along with the psych ward, had been set ablaze by inmates. There, they dug through roughly six inches of ash and rubble to find bone fragments. At one point, they found a pile of charred bodies - of which, three victims were identified. It is unknown if more bodies were in that pile, but only three victims could be found and/or identified.
In addition to the anthropologist and his students brought in to piece together victims via bone fragments, more medical experts were called upon to assist. This included six dentists and several dental interns, who were asked to identify victims by dental records.
This was the type of case that was going to require a lot of documentation, and a lot of forensic testing to not only identify the victims, but to determine who had killed them and why.
Dr. James Weston, New Mexico's Medical Investigator, stated about the potential court cases:
"Because each body was that of a homicide victim with 2 or 3 assailants, I knew that we would need to keep track of lots of evidence. 1st degree murder charges will be filed in every one of these cases. All of our findings are going to be presented in court as these cases go to trial."
On the motivation for the crimes committed in the span of the prison riot, Dr. Weston was pretty spot-on:
"The overriding picture that I got was absolute, unbelievable rage."
Despite the forensic insight that was brought into the investigation by Dr. James Weston, the overall criminal investigation of the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot was - tragically - botched from the get-go. This was not due to any fault of state officials or the National Guard, who were all just responding to a tragedy that was not of their making.
However, in the rush to clear up the penitentiary of carnage and re-house the prisoners, the crime scenes themselves had been damaged.
Many bodies and weapons were removed from the penitentiary by National Guardsmen before state police could document the crime scenes. The state police were required to take at least four photographs of the scene around each homicide victims, but of the 33 accountable victims, that feat was only accomplished once.
Additionally, murder weapons were collected from the inmates housed in the courtyard very haphazardly. These were taken from inmates upon them surrendering to authorities or being detained, and then stored in primary locations (boxes, containers, etc.). There, any forensic evidence would be forever contaminated.
As the cleanup continued, more weapons were added to these piles, and they would continue to trickle in over days and weeks.
In the book titled "The Devil's Butcher Shop," author Roger Morris goes into extensive detail about not only the riot itself, but the buildup and the fallout. He utilized mostly primary sources and government documentation to craft his story, which includes a number of bleak theories about the investigation and the overall victim count.
In the aftermath of the riot, it was announced that the bodies of 33 victims had been found. That was the total announced on Sunday, February 3rd, 1980 - just hours after the riot came to a close, and the National Guard had begun their cleanup. This was before any of the medical investigators had been called in to examine the scene, and before any experts had been brought in to identify bone fragments.
This number of total victims - 33 - would never change following that Sunday announcement of total victims. This is despite state police continuing to remove bodies from the scene, which individual members would claim later on.
Some unofficial estimates would push the victim count as high as 39, but - again - that's an unofficial estimate.
In his book, Roger Morris explains that the true victim total may never be truly known because of the unknown prisoner count at the time of the riot. Most - if not all - prisoner documentation was burned in the riot itself, and the total number of prisoners at the time of the riot was not backed up anywhere else. Investigators were unable to retrieve any secondary source for prisoner count, and had to try to retrace prisoner intake forms through outside sources.
Roger Morris also mentions in "The Devil's Butcher Shop" that some of the riot's victims had been so badly burned in the riot that their physical details were unknown. This included not only hair and skin color, but their weight and other features. This would make identifying victims a near-impossibility, especially if they didn't have comprehensive dental records - which was definitely the case for many inmates.
On March 8th, 1980, following the release of an investigative report into the riot, New Mexico Governor Bruce King spoke to the media and stated he was "totally satisfied" with the count of 33 casualties in the prison riot. However, this seemed to be in direct contrast with his own department's accounting, which listed 20 prisoners being unlocated entirely, 8 men being in places other than what official documentation showed, 5 men having been mysterious paroled ahead of their eligibility period, and 6 being held in federal prisons that had no record of ever housing them.
And that's just what was reported at the time. Other prisoners were potentially lost forever in the burning of the penitentiary's records.
When asked about the discrepancies between the official tally and the statements from state police, who had claimed to move bodies out of the penitentiary in the days after the "33 victim" total was announced, Governor King stated that those were just witnesses under "emotional duress."
Governor King's announcement - that he was "totally satisfied" with the victim count - was preceded by other reports from the same department, which cast doubt on the official tally. On February 20th, departmental records showed as many as 100 men lost in a whirlwind of transfers, releases, and rehousing. This was then followed by a report on February 26th, made by analysts, which showed 18 prisoners missing with "reasons for concern for the inmates-in-question."
These were issues that were still present when Governor King gave his March 8th announcement. In fact, when he told reporters that he was "totally satisfied" with the count of 33 riot victims, there were 19 men still missing from the official prison tally - 19 men that were unaccounted for by any official documentation.
Just days after the riot - on February 5th, 1980 - Santa Fe's District Attorney announced that he would "ask for the stiffest penalties possible." However, just days later, it would come to light that prisoners were being refused their constitutional right to legal counsel - in direct violation of the court orders that prisoners had demanded in their negotiations.
Following the news of this refusal to give prisoners the right to legal counsel, a New Mexico assistant attorney general would tell the press:
"We are not recognizing court orders directing prison officials to allow lawyers to see their clients. Those court orders just aren't worth the paper they're printed on, in my judgment."
A special riot prosecution staff was assembled, which consisted of more than forty attorneys. Together, they hinted at pursuing more than 80 separate crimes involving more than 100 prisoners, but soon showed themselves as being more bark than bite.
The prosecution was able to achieve several convictions and guilty pleas, but witnesses and defendants claimed that prison staff had leaned on prisoners to testify in exchange for safety. In essence, the prosecution just continued on the same kind of "snitching" program that had resulted in increased tensions before the riot.
One lawyer that participated in these legal proceedings wrote to the Albuquerque Journal, and stated:
"The jury trials brought public attention to superficial investigations and to ill-advised deals where charges against the guilty were dropped in exchange for testimony against the innocent."
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
In total, more than $2.2 million was spent on the prosecution - the equivalent of $6.5 million in today's money. Despite this high total, 17 out of the 33 accountable murders remained unsolved. These were cases that weren't prosecuted at all, including the brutal murders of Joe Madrid and Paulina Paul, as well as Tom O'Meara and Robert Quintela (whose stories I didn't explore in this series).
Of the 13 murders where charges were filed, 19 plea bargains were obtained. 14 of these plea deals were for second-degree murders; 11 of which brought forth only concurrent sentences. That meant that 11 of the 19 that received plea deals for murder charges received no added time to their sentence. They were already violent criminals locked up on lengthy sentences, so they lost absolutely nothing.
Of the men that organized the riot, only 1 out of 8 went to trial. The other 7 received plea deals that ran concurrently to their original sentence; meaning that they received zero additional jail-time.
Only 2 of the murder trials would go before a jury; in which case, both defendants were found guilty. However, both would go on to face a retrial, and one received a hung jury, resulting in a legal quagmire for years to come.
The longest consecutive sentence given in relation to the riots and the murders was the addition of nine years to an inmate's sentence. Nine years for the senseless rape, murder, and destruction that had engulfed the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
The rest of the inmates that had been charged in relation to the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot received nothing more than concurrent sentences; meaning that those who had perpetrated this brutal, senseless orgy of violence... basically got away with it.
Another lawyer that participated in the numerous legal proceedings would state, under the veil of anonymity:
"I just don't think that the truth about the riot came out."
Months after the riot had come to an end, New Mexico State passed a bill granting $87.5 million to the prison system.
With this legislation, New Mexico was announcing its intentions to build another new maximum security prison - with roughly $50 million in state bonds reserved for that construction - and refitting the current state penitentiary as a medium security facility.
Of the $87.5 million passed by the legislation, upwards of $2.5 million were set aside for riot-related expenses. $1 million was meant for law enforcement, another $1 million meant to pay for inmate housing, roughly $200,000 for the excessive hospital bills in the aftermath, and approximately $500,000 to pay for the numerous criminal investigations.
Another large portion of this bill allowed the state to set aside money for lawsuits. This was for the family members of murder victims, such as Joe Madrid or Paulina Paul, who were contemplating legal action against the penitentiary for failing to protect their incarcerated loved ones.
By the end of a 90-day deadline - a time period in which inmates and their loved ones could file legal action - there were 412 pending lawsuits against the state and the state penitentiary. It is unknown how many of these resulted in settlements, but at least 15 inmates were able to successfully bring forward a suit against the New Mexico State Penitentiary for failing to take preventative measures and protect them.
Dr. James Weston - the state's medical examiner and primary medical investigator - was a titan in the field of pathology. I already told you that prior to his work in New Mexico, he had been one of the experts called in to conduct the autopsy of JFK and established the state's forensic offices.
No stranger to conspiracy theories, Dr. Weston became a very vocal critic of the administration in charge of the New Mexico State Penitentiary. At an annual meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners, held in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Dr. Weston addressed his work on the riot.
During this address, he outright accused the prison staff at the New Mexico State Pen of outright corruption when it came to the victims of Cellblock 4 (and why they had been originally sent to the Cellblock). In a section of this address, which a transcript was later made available of, Dr. James Weston stated:
"There were some eight or nine dishonest people... Of this eight or nine, about six of them from time to time accused various members of the prison crew - who had not been in a situation financially to come up with the werewithal of the bribery that was expected of them - of being snitches. So that the victims, of whom there were 33, actually only 17 had actually been snitches in the eyes of the eyewitnesses who were called ultimately to give evidence. The rest had just been accused of being snitches."
In case you found that a little hard-to-follow, Dr. Weston basically accused the prison staff of extorting prisoners for bribe money. When they failed to follow through, they were then sent to Cellblock 4 and labeled "snitches." That is what he was hinting at, at least.
Dr. Weston pointed to this odd occurrence - of inmates being labeled "snitches" for no real justification - as being evidence of rampant corruption in guards and prison officials. He was claiming that the prison staff had used the "snitch" label as both a punishment and a deterrent, but also a way to exact petty vengeance against those that refused to pay for protection.
Remember when I told you that inmates found roughly $1200 cash in the offices behind the Central Control Booth? Money that was unreported in the following days and week? Dr. Weston's comments would seem to tie into how that money came to be.
Dr. Weston seemed to be pinning the blame for some of the men in Cellblock 4 at the feet of prison officials; claiming that some who had been beaten, tortured, and murdered in the Cellblock 4 massacre had only been there because of the staff members that labeled them "snitches."
Later, when speaking to a television journalist about the case, Dr. Weston claimed that he had been threatened by prison officials and law enforcement in the weeks after his original comments. Speaking to the journalist, Dr. Weston stated:
"They told me to keep my mouth shut."
Unfortunately, less than two years after the riot, Dr. James Weston would pass away. He suffered a stroke while on a jog in an affluent New Mexico neighborhood, and his expertise - and secrets - went to the grave with him.
A report by New Mexico Attorney General Jeff Bingaman was published in June of 1980, which attempted to trace the roots of the riot and potentially uncover any validity in inmate concerns (i.e. mistreatment, corruption, etc.).
This report, which was followed up with a part two in September of 1980, found evidence of both mistreatment and corruption dating back to the prior administrations at the New Mexico State Pen. In it, State A.G. Bingaman detailed a lengthy period of deterioration inside the prison, as incentives for good behavior were lessened, and grimy practices - such as the "snitch" network - were given priority as a deterrent.
A lot of the info from this report made its way into the first episode of this series, in which I detailed the many critiques leveled against prison officials and staff on behalf of inmates - as well as the revolving door of prison wardens following the exodus of Warden Felix Rodriguez... who, I should mention, became acting warden once again following the riot.
Yet, despite this exhaustive report seeming to detail many aspects of prison administration that were immoral and unethical, there was nothing in it that was actually illegal. No discernible charges were ever laid against those that had created the powder keg inside the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
Many of the administrators and prison officials were stripped of their duties and titles, but - just like Felix Rodriguez, following his 1975 criminal investigation - were transferred to the Department of Corrections to work in other roles. Following the greatest catastrophe of their working careers, they had somehow failed upwards.
Unsurprisingly, the disorder and violence inside the state pen continued in the months and years after the riot. In September, inmate George Saavedra was killed inside the prison; quickly followed by another inmate, Apolinar Morago, who was killed in October. Morago had not been in the prison at the time of the riot, so he was "new blood," so to speak.
Following these murders, an increase in shakedowns and searches failed to find either of the weapons used. Those murders remain unsolved today.
In a scary incident reminiscent of the riot itself, inmates took over a cell block and demanded to speak to acting warden Felix Rodriguez. It appeared as if he remained to be the favorite of inmates, despite his reputation for holding grudges. Thankfully, that incident was resolved with no casualties, but it pointed to the continuation of faulty security protocols and chaos inside the prison.
Prisoners and guards began to fear that - with none of the original issues having been addressed, months after the fact - another riot was imminent. This fear continued to linger even when a new head of the prison system was brought in to oversee changes, and brought in a new warden to the state pen. After all, that warden ended up inheriting most of the same staff that Felix Rodriguez had hired, and kept in place many of the same conditions that led to the riot.
On May 15th, 1981 - more than a year after the riot - a new report was completed by Daniel Cron, an attorney with experience in prison litigation (on both sides of the aisle). He described "severe and widespread" violations of the law running rampant inside the prison, including:
"...across-the-board disobedience of the standards mandated for maximum-security inmates, inconsistent classification procedures, totally unsatisfactory conditions for food preparation [citing a report which called the pen kitchen as "imminent public health hazard"], unsafe and unsanitary living units and an absence of reasonable provisions for the physical safety of inmates."
It appeared that the hiring of a new "yes man" to head the prison, and a new coat of paint had done little to enact actual change inside the state penitentiary, and most of the prison's practices had not changed one iota.
Three years after the riot, a lawsuit filed in a federal court warned of the potential for another riot - similar to that in 1980 - due to the administration's apathetic response. This actually resulted in a consent decree, which put New Mexico's prison system under federal oversight for the next two decades.
This act, however, would change very little in the immediate future.
In 1987, the Albuquerque Journal published an illuminating series of exposes that detailed justice and injustice in the New Mexico penal system. This was more than seven years after the riot, but the series included a passage that I find incredibly pertinent:
"New Mexico's prisons are expensive to operate, crowded, and extremely violent... most of the deep-seated problems that led to the 1980 riot... are still present at the state's maximum and medium-security prisons. The rapidly-growing inmate population in those prisons still lives in a system supervised by underpaid, overworked, and poorly trained corrections officers. Rules governing inmate conduct change frequently and are inconsistently enforced. The system for classifying inmates is flawed. Entrenched gangs wield significant power, and an active snitch system further undermines the authority of wardens and guards."
Despite the prison population and penitentiary itself receiving a very apathetic response from state officials, the title of 'most egregious oversight' belongs to the prison guards that had to live through the riot firsthand.
In the aftermath of the riot, seven of the thirteen guards taken hostage were hospitalized. These were the same men that had to endure horrifying beatings and sexual assaults from inmates, and who struggled to recover in the aftermath.
When the riot was finally brought to an end, the prison guard staff introduced their own list of demands to prison administrators and staff officials, threatening a strike if their demands were not met. As a result, more than 56 of the prison's corrections officers would quit their jobs shortly thereafter, with more than 30 resigning by May 1st, 1980. This number included all 13 of the guards that had been held hostage - 8 of which eventually filed lawsuits against the state.
In September of 1980, prison psychologist Dr. Michael Orner (who had been ignored in the months leading up to the riot) claimed that three of the prison guards had become "vegetables" in the aftermath of the riot, assigning them the label of "mentally ill." In addition, he also stated that the guards who had been repeatedly raped by inmates felt "totally destroyed as human beings."
In the months and years after the riot, these guards struggled to regain their semblance of normality. All of the men were refused financial compensation, as both the state and the penitentiary did not want to admit fault (as doing so would result in either of them potentially paying out millions of dollars). They had to rely upon disability checks for some time after the riot.
Decades later, Marcella Armijo - a prison guard that had been absent on the day of the riot - said that many of the guards that she had worked with were now dead. Many due, in part, to the riot itself and the PTSD that lingered.
"A lot of them were never right again. Many of them started drinking."
When the state offered the opportunity for many of the guards to receive medals for their work in the riot and its aftermath, Marcella criticized the state's Corrections Department. In no certain terms, she stated:
"A medal the size of a quarter? No, thank you. Fuck 'em."
This anguish was also felt by Lawrence Lucero - the corrections officer that had been working in the Central Control Booth when the riot began spreading through the state pen. He was only 25 years old at the time of the riot, but is now in his mid-60's, having lived a long life full of anguish. He was just one of a handful of prison guards still living, and in 2015, he - alongside his wife, Isabel - petitioned the New Mexico House Judiciary Committee for compensation.
"The fire, the screams, the torturing of people, it's just something not even a movie could prepare you for. It's just something beyond this world."
This was a thought shared among not only the surviving prison staff, but the National Guardsmen that had to assist in the cleanup of the state pen itself. They, too, felt similarly abandoned by the state in the aftermath of the riot.
Floyd Garcia, the 20-year old National Guardsmen that was ordered to assist in the cleanup, described a long period of mental trauma following the ordeal. He described holding in his pain and anguish for more than 30 years, before it began reaching a head in 2012.
"I'm stable now, but it's never going to get better."
As a result of multiple sleepless nights and the loss of one-fifth of his body weight, Garcia was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Decades later, he found himself fighting for the same thing as Lawrence Lucero and the prison guards. Speaking in 2014, he stated:
"We're trying to get the state to take responsibility... for what was done to us. We never got any counseling, briefing or debriefing after the riot. We served our community, our state, our country."
Despite being on the front-lines for one of the most violent incidents in American history, these two men - among others - had not been able to process the carnage in more than thirty years. To them, this was still an example of the worst of humanity - not only the cruelty and savagery from the inmates that perpetrated the violence inside the prison, but the ignorance and apathy from politicians and administrators that didn't want to admit fault outside of it.
Lawrence Lucero, when asked about what had happened over the span of the riot, responded with a Spanish phrase that roughly translates to:
"The devil was set loose."
The site of the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot was permanently shuttered in 1998, following a long history of decrepit failings and disrepair. It was renamed "Old Main," and the remaining prisoners were transferred to facilities in the area - such as the new maximum security institution built nearby.
Nowadays, the site of the riot is open to the public. There, you can sign up for a tour that takes you through the facility itself, and takes you section-by-section as the riot unfolded. The clocks are even set to the times that certain events unfolded, such as the collapse of the Central Control Booth and the Cellblock 4 massacre.
The current Department of Corrections, long removed from the tenure of Felix Rodriguez and the Santa Fe Eleven, wanted to preserve the legacy of the riot so that it may have some resonance in the future. They asked former guards and inmates to contribute to the tour, recording videos and letting visitors know how it all unfolded from a firsthand perspective.
In addition to being a tourist attraction - one of the few in desolate New Mexico - the site of the riot is also a filming location. I told you a few of the movies that filmed in this location in part one, such as "The Longest Yard" and "All the Pretty Horses," but a number of productions have used the grounds to film for a very low price.
As I hinted at in part one, the site of the riot - "Old Main," as it is now known - is rumored to be haunted by the souls whose lives were lost inside the building. Many of the crews that filmed at this location reported odd phenomena, such as doors randomly closing, loud shrieking sounds, and other stuff that makes you wonder if the paranormal might have a basis in reality.
Despite New Mexico state closing the case on the riot many decades ago, many continue to question the official narrative. How many prisoners were truly lost in the riot? Could it have been prevented? Did we, as the general public, do enough to support those that needed it?
Perhaps, most importantly, could an event like this happen again? I could list a number of articles detailing mistreatment inside American prisons - including a particular story, detailing a violent uprising that occurred in another New Mexico Penitentiary just last year, in September of 2017. In that case, prison officials tried to hide details of the incident for close to a year, which included several violent assaults and the overthrow of a cellblock by violent inmates. You can actually see the footage of that incident, which I'll link on the Unresolved social media pages and websites.
It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Despite the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot being profiled in a handful of documentary projects and a couple of outstanding books, its place in history is seemingly forgotten. When you ask people about Attica or Alcatraz, they'll likely know at least something, but the New Mexico Riot remains immersed in a fog that clouds many of the issues which remain relevant today.
Because of that - in addition to the numerous questions I posed just a moment ago - I consider the story of the New Mexico State Penitentiary very much unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on December 2nd, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves