Commentary

INK IN THE BLOOD

Unassuming Bob Wiatt was fearless lawman
Willis Webb
When you spend more than half a century writing news, you tend to scan the obituaries to see who you knew that you outlived today.

A recent obit scan produced a notice about Bob Wiatt, who spent 50 years in law enforcement and was involved in some headline cases.

Wiatt was as fearless but unassuming an individual as any whose path I crossed. He was in the FBI for almost 30 years before retiring.

Then, he did two years as a district attorney’s investigator and finished his career with 22 years as director of security and university police at Texas A&M University.

In 1968, he negotiated the peaceful surrender of a man who’d killed his wife and had taken a 16-yearold girl and a school principal hostage in an attempt to escape from authorities.

Two other cases provided me with some familiarity of Wiatt. One case I just sort of skirted the edge of but the other seriously involved my town and newspaper at the time.

The public’s first introduction to his name and fearlessness was an event that was made into the movie “The Sugarland Express,” released in 1974. Wiatt told everyone the movie was fiction although it was based roughly on an incident to which he put an end.

In 1969, Robert and Ila Fae Dent kidnapped Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Kenneth Crone to secure Robert’s freedom from prison.

They drove a circuitous route through Houston and around much of Central and East Texas, drawing law enforcement vehicles into a caravan that ultimately reached 150 cars and paraded more than 300 miles.

That caravan moved through Cleveland where I was publishing a newspaper. I stood on the sidewalk and shot pictures of the string of cars as they moved slowly through the city.

The chase ended at the home of Ila Fae’s mother in Wheelock near Bryan. Wiatt, then a FBI agent, shot and killed Robert and disarmed and arrested Ila Fae.

A second public exposure to Wiatt came in 1974 while I was editing a Conroe newspaper.

This case made national and international headlines as three men tried to break out of the state prison in Huntsville, taking several civilians and 70 fellow prisoners hostage in the prison library.

An architect had earlier told prison officials the library, stemming from its design, offered the wrong kind of opportunities for inmates.

The siege lasted 12 days and three of the civilian hostages were prison system employees from Conroe, prompting our coverage every day.

Unfortunately, two civilians, along with two escapees, died in the resulting shootout. The two civilians, struck by deliberate inmate gunfire, who died were Elizabeth Y. Beseda and Julia C. Standley. None of the dead were from Conroe.

One of the hostages from Conroe, Linda Woodruff, stayed with the prison system and retired years later as a warden.

Inmate Fred Gomez Carrasco, a convicted drug dealer, led the escape attempt and was killed in the resulting shootout as was fellow inmate Rudy S. Dominguez. Inmate Ignacio Cuevas survived but was convicted of murder and executed in 1991.

On the final day of the Huntsville siege, the would-be escapees devised a plan to shoot their way out. They took a large box, long and narrow, and attached pieces of wood for handles to the front and back of the box.

They nailed books on every exposed side to absorb the anticipated gunfire from authorities. Each of the three escapees had a hostage in front and in back of themselves. The inmates got under the box with those hostages while other hostages carried the shield from the outside.

Upon coming out of the library in their makeshift shield, the escapees and hostages were hit by high-pressure fire hoses and the gunfire exchange erupted.

Conroe Courier reporter Mike Bryan said Wiatt led the charge on the barricaded prisoners. Wiatt, who was wearing a flak jacket, was hit twice by gunfire.

Although a participant in high profile events, the lawman rarely talked about any incident in which he was involved.

wwebb@wildblue.net


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2010-10-21 digital edition



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