A heavily armed FBI SWAT team stormed a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego on Tuesday, ending a nearly 17-hour standoff with two inmates who had taken a prison guard hostage in their cell.
The guard, Donnie Houston, 29, was examined at UC San Diego Medical Center, where doctors found that he had suffered “seemingly no injuries at all,” a hospital spokeswoman said.
A second guard, Robert Gibson, 29, suffered minor injuries while escaping from the cell shortly after the inmates overpowered the guards about 9 p.m. Monday, prison spokesman Gavin O’Connor said.
The inmates were taken into custody at 1:40 p.m. Tuesday, O’Connor said.
“Staff is looking into the way the situation concluded,” he said. “They have to get written statements from the FBI and all staff involved.”
O’Connor said he did not expect the report to be available until this morning.
It was the first hostage-taking incident at the federal prison since it opened 15 years ago, O’Connor said.
The inmates had demanded access to the media to talk about living conditions in their cells, said Sheldon Sherman, the attorney for one of the men. They also wanted to make a bargain with the U.S. attorney in which Rodriguez would receive credit for time served and be freed in exchange for Houston’s release. None of the demands were met.
Ernest Olivo Cruz and Jose Rodriguez, both originally from Cuba, held Houston hostage in the cell they shared in a high-security area of the 12-story prison, O’Connor said. They had apparently fashioned a knife-like weapon from furniture in the cell. No details were available about how the inmates overcame the two guards or how Gibson escaped.
Cruz previously escaped from prison in Florida, where he was serving two life sentences, O’Connor said. Cruz and Rodriguez, both 32, were being held at MCC on drug-related charges.
A federal agent who had arrested the pair during a drug sting in San Diego recognized Cruz in October while watching a television program about unsolved crimes, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in San Diego told The Times last month. Fingerprint checks confirmed that Cruz was actually Emilio Bravo, who had escaped from prison in Dade County, Fla.
Cruz pleaded guilty to charges of trying to rob federal agents in the sting and was awaiting sentencing. Rodriguez was awaiting trial on the charge, O’Connor said.
SWAT team members stormed the cell after Houston started screaming, said Sherman, who was representing Rodriguez on the drug charges. Sherman and federal public defender David Cohen, who represented Cruz, were called in about 10 p.m. Monday after the inmates refused to continue negotiating with the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Sherman said.
Houston was bound at the hands and feet and was sitting in a corner of the cell, Sherman said. The inmates repeatedly threatened to kill him as 30 SWAT officers stood just out of sight with automatic rifles poised.
Cells in the high-security area on the fifth floor are “specially equipped to restrict movement of the inmates,” O’Connor said. “Only one cell is allowed out at a time. The area they are allowed out into is small.”
The inmates complained that they were mistreated by guards, let out of their cells only one hour a day and severely restricted in their ability to make phone calls or have visitors, Sherman said.
According to Sherman, a staff psychologist wrote a letter to prison authorities warning that Rodriguez was becoming mentally ill because of conditions at the prison and recommended sending him to Lompoc prison’s high-security ward, where he would be afforded more freedom.
Rodriguez was shuffled between Lompoc and the MCC, brought to San Diego for court appearances, and had been at MCC for a few days before the hostage scenario unfolded, Sherman said.