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Former employees, hostages and families to gather on anniversary of riot at Oakdale prison

Last Modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 9:42 PM

By Doris Maricle / American Press

OAKDALE — Former hostage Michael Grimes still keeps a knife given to him by his captor as a reminder of the nine days he and 27 other prison guards spent in captivity at a federal detention center in Allen Parish.

The knife was given to him by one of the nearly 1,000 Cubans detainees who took control of the Oakdale Federal Detention Center just before Thanksgiving 1987.

"They'd been telling us off and on that they were going to release us, so it got to the point we didn't know what to believe," Grimes said. "I looked out the window and saw them throwing knives up in the area. I didn't know what was going on, then they told us we were released. We still couldn't believe it. It felt like a crazy dream."

On his way out of the facility, one of the Cubans gave him a big knife, which he hid in his blanket  "just in case," as he walked out.

He plans to bring the knife with him Saturday as more than 100 former employees, hostages and their families gather in Oberlin for their first reunion since the ordeal ended.

How it started

During a recent interview with the American Press, Grimes said tensions erupted shortly after the State Department and Bureau of Prisons announced that Cuba had agreed to take back more than 2,500 detainees who had come to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boat lift.

Working as a correctional officer, Grimes was inside one of the dormitories when the unrest began on Nov. 21.

"We knew things were out of control when we saw all the officers running across the compound," he said. "We knew it was out of control and we couldn't make it out."

By the end of the standoff, half of the $17 million facility's 14 buildings had been destroyed — many of them burned — and 28 guards were held hostage along with 50 American inmates who were unable to leave. Two guards were released earlier — one for health reasons and a second one who was stabbed by a detainee.

A similar scene played out in Atlanta, Ga. where Cuban detainees also took control of a facility, taking more than 100 hostages and torching it. One inmate was killed by a guard.

"We knew what was going to happen," Grimes said. "I think one of the greatest things that stands out was that we, as young employees at the time, knew we were sitting on top of a bomb."

Common bond

Those who worked at the facility had no problem putting their lives on the line for each other, Grimes said.

"We stayed and we banded together as a family," he said. "There were times when we didn't know if we would go home or not."

"It gave me a whole different outlook on life.Things that we take for granted on a daily basis now becomes something of a great importance ... your family and your friends."

Grimes, who retired from the Bureau of Prisons, now works as a criminal investigator for the Public Defender's Office in Opelousas. He still carries the scars from the days of fear and uncertainty that he calls his "Samson and Delilah."

"You try to block it out, but you still have moments, even if you try to tuck it away and put it in a safe, you look up and it's still here," he said. "It is something that is going to be with us forever. Whether you were on the inside or outside the perimeter, it is something that will always be with you."

After being freed from captivity, Grimes took some time off but returned to work at the facility.

"It was very difficult going back because of what we had went through," he said. "I encountered some of the same inmates who had us locked up, so I still had to wrestle with my Delilah."

The Cubans revolted because they feared being deported, Grimes said.

"I was going to put a jacket on and blend in as an inmate, but I still had my gray (uniform) pants on," he said.

Human shields

During the crisis, Grimes and another officer were handcuffed and taken to a fence area where the Cubans used them as a human barricade and held a knife to their throat as prison guards outside the fence pointed guns at them.

Later back inside the facility, Grimes said the Cubans were restless, setting fires to the facility and brandishing makeshift weapons. They separated the hostages, locked them up and took their clothing

"I thought we were all going to die," he said. "It was an eerily dark and a crazy feeling because the  Cubans can get excited then calm down. You never knew what mood they were going to take. They could treat you nice one hour and the next hour have a knife to your throat. It was touch and go. You couldn't think of anything else but death and your family. We were helpless and had nothing to protect ourselves."

The Cubans had nothing to lose, he said.

"They could either die here or die in Cuba," he said.

Tommy Rigmaiden, a DeRidder native now living in Grand Prairie, Texas, worked as a yard officer at the facility.

Rigmaiden says he still suffers sleepless nights.

"I still have nightmares of all the Cubans chasing me and I wake up," he said. "I still see the fires in my sleep. I don't think I will ever get over it."

Rigmaiden left FDC-Oakdale, but continues to work in law enforcement as a field training officer near Fort Worth, Texas.

A miracle

"What occurred at Oakdale was nothing but a miracle," he said. "The fact that it ended without a loss of life or a serious injury was just that, a miracle."

The turning point in the riot was a visit from Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, who was born in Cuba. Roman served as a negotiator between the detainees and federal officials, landing a moratorium on deportations and individual case reviews.

Rigmaiden also credits well trained employees at the facility for the way the situation was handled, but says officials did not do enough to recognize employees for what they went through.

Reunion long time coming

"I am looking forward to seeing and embracing each other,"  Rigmaiden said of the reunion. "I think it will be both joyful and a healing time for all and I will continue to ask the surrounding communities and people in general to remember the employees because there were some brave, unsung heroes that came from this."

At least a dozen of the former employees, including the warden at the time, have died, he said.

"I've tried to get them to do something for the 10, 15 and 20 year mark, but we never got together. It's the quarter of a century, I think it's time. We are fading by the numbers as related to age."

Charlie Marmolejo, an acting captain at the time, felt trouble was brewing shortly after U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese's announcement and began to feel apprehensive.

"When Meese made the announcement, I just knew something big was going to happen and I told the warden that," Marmolejo saidLater that evening he was called away from a retirement party for a co-worker after one of the Cubans created a disturbance in the dining hall, forcing the facility to place the inmates on lockdown.

"The next day I was there early in the morning and things felt uneasy," he said.

He tried to get his confidential informants to tell him what was going on, but they were scared to come forward, he said. They later hid a note for him written in broken English saying that the inmates were planning to riot around 5:30 p.m.

After receiving the note, Marmolejo set up a plan of action including forming special squadrons and arming them with gas, mace, handcuffs and projectiles. He made a decision to keep the day shift on and sent the female employees to patrol the outside permitter.

"My priority was to keep the staff safe and not let any Cubans out," he said.

Prison takeover

Just before 7 p.m. Marmolejo and others watched as the Cubans, many armed with makeshift weapons, began swarming the center of the compound.

"I will never forget them shouting and rushing toward the lobby," he said. "I watched as the squad came in and stopped them (Cubans) until they had exhausted all their gas and we had no choice but to retreat and attempt to make it out."

By that time the facility was filling up with tear gas and smoke and the Cubans had taken over the radios, making communication among employees difficult.

Many employees and some inmates had taken refuge in the kitchen area. Others were cornered in the pharmacy and control center as the tensions built, he said.

Marmolejo spent the next three hours unsuccessfully trying to talk the Cubans into surrendering.

After fires broke out and the power went out, Marmolejo and several Cubans who wanted no part of the rioting helped rescue the trapped employees.

"I told them, 'I'll help you, if you help me," he said. "We got people out, but unfortunately we couldn't get to the ones in the back.''

The rescued employees used car headlights to light up the facility that night as the standoff continued.

Twenty-five years later, Marmolejo does not consider himself a hero.

"I am a Vietnam veteran and the Marine Corps prepared me well," he said. "I knew I could cope with that mentally from what I went through in Vietnam. I went through some traumatic experiences there, so when it came to this, I just used common sense."

Marmolejo spent the next nine days assisting hostage negotiators and hostage release teams.

Of the hostages release, Marmolejo  said, "It was satisfying and I was grateful to the fact that nobody was seriously hurt or killed. It ended up being a peaceful resolution. I felt I had accomplished what I had set out to do. It was unfortunate that there were hostages."

Marmolejo recently read a diary kept by one of the hostages.

"What they went through was hell," he said. "They were moved from place to place and handcuffed to railings to be the first to die if anyone attempted to gain entry."

Marmolejo stayed in Oakdale for three years after the riot before being promoted to a warden's assistant at a federal facility in Texas.

He now lives in Crowley, Texas and has been retired from the Bureau of Prisons for six-and-a-half years.

Shocked by riot

Oakdale Mayor Andrew Hayes, who was a police juror at the time and has served on the facility's advisory board for several years, was shocked when he learned of the uprising.

"When I first heard about it, I didn't want to believe what was taking place," he said, still shaking the memory.

His initial concern was for the people inside the facility because he had relatives and church members who worked there. Fortunately none of them became hostages.

"I wasn't afraid (for the outside) because I knew any time a federal prison is built they have security set up and I was depending on it to fall in place," Hayes said. "I was more concerned about the employees there and those being held hostage and their families.

Like with any other disaster or emergency, Hayes said the people of Allen Parish leaned on each other for support.

"Oakdale is one of those places that has a mindset at how to take care and support each other," he said.

He said most residents supported rebuilding the facility, which was rebuilt two years later to house federal inmates and illegal aliens.

"You are looking at a number of employees out here because the facility is one of our larger employers," he said.

It also means revenues for the city as one of its largest water and sewer consumers and for local retailers who reap the benefits of employees and visitors to the facility.

"The facility plays a major role here, not only because of the services we provide them but the major role they play in helping the communities,"  he said. "We are glad to have them in Oakdale. It has been a plus for us."

The city is currently working with prison officials to build an emergency exit road on East Whatley Road. There is currently only one road in and out of the facility.

The road would exit to the old La. 10 highway to the southeast of the facility.

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