September 22, 2014

Historian, former inmate, troopers recall 1954 MO Penitentiary riot

60 years ago the prison that had helped Jefferson City to remain the state’s capital city threatened to turn on the town. The biggest riot in Missouri State Penitentiary’s 168-years of operation kicked off shortly after 6 the evening of September 22, 1954, and what would follow was hours of chaos and 50 years of recovery.

An aerial view of Missouri State Penitentiary after the Sept. 22, 1954 riot.  Labeled are:  1. An Outside Warehouse, 2. Ball Field, 3. Gas Chamber, 4. License Plate Factory 5. Clothing Factory, 6. I-Hall, 7. Shoe Factory, 8. Soap Factory, 9. Power House, 10. (number not placed on image), 11. Recreation Building, 12. Vocational Building, 13. Tabacco Shop, 14. F & G Halls, 15. B & C Halls, 16. Dining Hall, 17. A-Hall, 18. Maintenance Building, 19. E-Hall, 20. J & K Halls, 21. Machine Shop, 22. Furniture Factory, 23. Commisary & Cold Storage, 24. Hospital, 25. Garage, 26. Administration Building, 27. Chapel (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

An aerial view of Missouri State Penitentiary after the Sept. 22, 1954 riot. Labeled are: 1. An Outside Warehouse, 2. Ball Field, 3. Gas Chamber, 4. License Plate Factory 5. Clothing Factory, 6. I-Hall, 7. Shoe Factory, 8. Soap Factory, 9. Power House, 10. (number not placed on image), 11. Recreation Building, 12. Vocational Building, 13. Tobacco Shop, 14. F & G Halls, 15. B & C Halls, 16. Dining Hall, 17. A-Hall, 18. Maintenance Building, 19. E-Hall, 20. J & K Halls, 21. Machine Shop, 22. Furniture Factory, 23. Commissary & Cold Storage, 24. Hospital, 25. Garage, 26. Administration Building, 27. Chapel (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

MSP had been built in Jefferson City largely to solidify its status as the state capital when many in the 1830s were calling for that distinction to be given to St. Louis. By 1954 the prison had long been overpopulated. Due to a low staff-to-convict ratio, the inmates were responsible for many important duties such as carrying out head counts, or even making the keys for the cell blocks. The Truman Commission that studied the prison after the September 1954 riot used the word “deplorable” repeatedly in its report on the conditions and state of the facility.

The riot began in E-Hall, a brick housing unit built in the 1880s, of which the third floor was a segregation unit for incorrigibles. A 19-year-old in that unit named William Donald DeLapp called a guard to his cell complaining that his sheets were wet due to a broken pipe that had been repaired earlier, and he didn’t feel well. When the guard came, DeLapp overpowered him, grabbed his keys and began turning other inmates loose.

Eventually prisoners from five buildings were freed. Estimates of the number of those who participated in the riot range from as few as 500, up to nearly half of the 3,361 the prison held at the time.

Causes of the riot, inmates at the time claimed, included “brutal” punishments of prisoners by some among the prison staff, changes that had recently been made in the state’s parole board, and poor administration of medical care.  Some the next morning said they had been served rotten watermelon with the evening meal before the riot, and said that had been a final straw of sorts.

One of the men sometimes remembered as a “ringleader” in that riot rejects the watermelon claim.

“No, no, no, that’s fabrication there, you know? Fabrication and exaggeration … the reason why the riot kicked off is because of brutality, cruel and unusual punishment by the guards, the clothes they wore was raggedy clothes that didn’t fit them, the shoes they wore didn’t fit them and … you were short-changed on medication there, too,” he claims.

“He,” is Joseph Vidauri, who entered MSP in 1952 a the age of 17. Vidauri, who asks to be referred to by his Confirmation name, Barabbas, is now 79 and serving two consecutive 30-year sentences for rape at the Correctional Center in Bowling Green. He says prisons and their guards today are nothing like they were in 1954.

Below: Joseph Vidauri on what he claims led to the riot at MSP in September, 1954

The inmates look to settle scores

Joe Vidauri is walked into Cole County Circuit Court in October, 1954.  (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Joe Vidauri is walked into Cole County Circuit Court in October, 1954. (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Vidauri was once convicted of taking part in the murder of a fellow inmate Walter Lee Donnell during the September 1954 riot. That conviction was later overturned.

Donnell, 30, was considered a “snitch” by the other prisoners because he had testified against members of a gang that had carried out armed robberies in St. Louis. He was in protective custody in “death row” in the lower level of B and C Hall, a stone housing unit built in sections completed in 1914 and 1918.

After death row guard Clarence Dietzel threw his keys behind locked bars and out of the reach of inmates storming the unit, those inmates broke through a wall into the unit using a sledgehammer. That sledgehammer was later one of the tools used by other inmates to kill Donnell.

In the cell next to Donnell’s was James Creighton, who rioters also wanted to kill, but they couldn’t get to him because he jammed his cell’s lock with pieces of paper, cardboard and match sticks. He did suffer a facial wound made by a sharpened broom handle that his attackers used to gouge at him through the bars.

It was Creighton and another man who later testified against seven inmates who were accused of murdering Donnell, but some debate continues among historians as to what actually happened in death row that night.

The riot is quelled

Donnell’s body was still in his cell when Highway Patrol troopers including Tom Ferguson of Springfield swept the prison as the riot was being put down.

“I looked at him,” says Ferguson, who remembered Donnell being battered beyond recognition.

Inmates are led into A-Hall as the Sept. 1954 riot is put down at MSP.  What appears to be blood and a shoe, remnants from one of the inmates shot by troopers forcing inmates off the yard, can be seen near the curb.  (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Inmates are led into A-Hall as the Sept. 1954 riot is put down at MSP. What appears to be blood and a shoe, remnants from one of the inmates shot by troopers forcing inmates off the yard, can be seen near the curb. (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Ferguson remembers entering the prison roughly three hours after the riot began, having driven to Jefferson City from Hamilton as fast as his patrol car could take him.

He and all the troopers in the state were called to the prison and led the effort to put the riot down. Other responding law enforcement included the Jefferson City Police Department, the Cole County Sheriff’s Department, the St. Louis Police Department and the Missouri National Guard.

Approaching the capital, Ferguson remembers seeing the fires set by the prisoners in MSP’s factories. He and other troopers arriving at the prison were told to take in their shotguns and ammunition.

“The prisoners were right up to the gate and they were throwing chair legs and everything they could break up at us,” recalls Ferguson. “Sergeant [Herb] Brigham had a .45-calibur machine gun, Thompson, and he fired it up in the ceiling … and they retreated real fast.”

Corky Cundiff was a trooper in St. Joseph and remembers making the drive to Jefferson City faster than ever before or since. He says local law enforcement along his route had blocked off the highways to let troopers get through without slowing down.

Highway Patrol vehicles are seen parked outside the entrance to Missouri State Penitentiary.  State Troopers and National Guardsmen can also be seen.  (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Highway Patrol vehicles are seen parked outside the entrance to Missouri State Penitentiary. State Troopers and National Guardsmen can also be seen. (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

His car was one of those whose engines was pushed too hard, though it made it to about a block from the prison entrance before it gave out. By the time Cundiff arrived the inmates had been driven back into housing units.

“It was just putting them in cells as you went along,” Cundiff says of his job when he entered the prison with a group of other troopers. “There wasn’t any argument about whether [an inmate was assigned to a particular cell] or not, you went in there anyway, and just getting them locked up so there wasn’t any running around the Penitentiary.”

The last building to be retaken on the morning of September 23 was B and C Hall. Some inmates there refused to back down and surrender until one was fatally shot by a trooper.

The damage is assessed

No inmates had escaped in the riot, which was fortunate for the people of Jefferson City given the prison’s location near the heart of the city. Many of those residents had spent the night armed with their own rifles and shotguns, prepared to respond if any convicts did manage to breach the wall. Some banded together to search a wooded area outside the east wall when rumors circulated that some inmates had been freed and were hiding among the trees there.

A wounded inmate is carried by fellows through the lobby of MSP to the prison hospital during the riot.  (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

A wounded inmate is carried by fellows through the lobby of MSP to the prison hospital during the riot. (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

The riot left four inmates dead and about 60 injured. Among the facilities that had been destroyed were the prison’s recreation building, vocational building, tobacco shop, license plate factory and the dining hall that also housed a chapel and school. Damage estimates at the time were between $4-million and $5-million.

Several guards had been held hostage and some, including Dietzel, had been beaten. Dietzel had been carried out of B and C Hall by two inmates who didn’t want to see him killed because, “he was a decent man.” There were other such stories of inmates helping to rescue staff and fight fires, and many others didn’t participate in the riot for reasons including being too near the end of a sentence and not wanting to risk more time.

The legacy of the September 1954 prison riot

The tension did not ease with the end of the September 1954 riot. Even as the Truman Commission was beginning its review of the prison, another, smaller riot broke out on October 23, 1954. Though it was said to have been put down in roughly an hour it left one inmate dead, shot by a guard, and about 40 inmates injured.

Historian and former MSP Deputy Warden Mark Schreiber says the Missouri Department of Corrections learned many lessons from the riots of 1954.

“Though Missouri was, in my opinion, rather slow to respond to a lot of the needs, we certainly made some changes,” says Schreiber. “We added another maximum security institution, that being the Potosi Correctional Center, we added a good classification system, we devised training for staff; a rulebook for staff and for offenders, we implemented … the first emergency squads … so that prison staff, themselves, would be able to respond to emergencies once they first occurred.”

A lone man walks the yard in front of B and C Hall on the morning after the riot.  In the background is the burned-out shell of the dining hall.  (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

A lone man walks the yard in front of B and C Hall on the morning after the riot. In the background is the burned-out shell of the dining hall. (Courtesy; Missouri State Archives and Mark Schreiber)

Perhaps the greatest response to the riot was the construction of the rest of Missouri’s prison system. MSP was only one of two true prisons in the state in 1954, the other being Algoa Correctional Center, then an intermediate reformatory. The state spent the next 50 years adding to its prison system, culminating with the construction of the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center, where roughly 1800 inmates were transferred when MSP finally closed September 15, 2004.

Today MSP stands at last decommissioned, many of its buildings having been demolished, but much of its wall and four of its most historic structures still stand, visited by tens of thousands of tour guests a year. A multi-year lease agreement between Missouri and the City of Jefferson seems to assure that those buildings will be around to mark the 70th anniversary of the riot as well.

Tour guests hear these and other stories of that night, and Schreiber says it’s for good reason.

“In presentations that have been done regarding the riot or whatever, there’s certainly no attempt to glamorize or romanticize what happened,” says Schreiber. “Any time you have a loss of life, any time you have property damage, any time you have individuals that are lawless, resulting in injury … that’s always a tragic event and it always has impact.

“It certainly had impact on the state of Missouri.”

More videos below:

Vidauri on how the riot of September 1954 began

Vidauri gives his version of how Walter Donnell was killed

MODOT needs shovelers (AUDIO)

Summer leaves us at 9:29 tonight. But the Missouri Department of Transportation already is thinking a season ahead.

If you have some spare time to hit the road in the nastiest weather of the year, the transportation department might have a truck for you to drive. The department is recruiting seasonal workers for emergency snowplow duty. It needs the part-timers to provide relief for the 2400 maintenance workers who will carry the bulk of the snow removal workload.

Maintenance Engineer Randy Aulbur says the department is looking for people who can be available at any time. “A lot of times we’ll attract people that are retired from over-the-road driving or even our own folks that have retired,” he says.

The department wants people at least 18 years old with a commercial driver’s license with no airbrake restrictions and a clean criminal record.

They have to pass a drug test. Applications are accepted through the MODOT web page or with calls to the department toll-free number 888-ASK-MODOT.

The department runs training sessions for its own people and for the part-timers to get them ready to drive the snow removal equipment.

AUDIO: Aulbur interview 7:14

Supreme Court sets execution date for triple-murderer Mark Christeson

The state Supreme Court has set a date for the execution of convicted murderer Mark Christeson. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection early the morning of October 29 at the prison in Bonne Terre.

Mark Christeson (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

Mark Christeson (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

Christeson, 35, was sentenced to death in 1999 for the murders of Susan Brouk and her children, 9-year-old Kyle and 12-year-old Adrian, at the Brouk’s home near Vichy.

Christeson, then 18, had raped Susan Brouk. He and his cousin, Jessie Carter, then forced her and her children into her vehicle and drove to her neighbor’s pond. There, Christeson cut her throat and her son’s throat before holding the boy in the pond until he drowned. He then suffocated her daughter and pushed her body into the pond, finally throwing Susan into the pond on top of her children where she drowned.

Both men were found guilty of three counts of first degree murder. Jessie Carter is serving life in prison without possibility of parole for his role in the murders.

MU Professor calls findings of UC-Davis autism study exciting

A University of Missouri professor says he’s excited by the findings of a University of California-Davis study that reinforces the need to detect and treat autism spectrum disorder as early as possible.

Associate Professor SungWoo Kahng with the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri.

Associate Professor SungWoo Kahng with the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri.

The study indicates that when infants showing signs of autism were treated between the ages of 6 and 15 months old, they experienced significantly reduced symptoms. Most were reported to have no autism spectrum disorder or developmental delays by age 3.

UC-Davis says treatment for children diagnosed with autism typically begins when they are 3 or 4.

University of Missouri Professor SungWoo Kahng says he’s cautiously optimistic about the findings, but says it drives home to parents and doctors that early detection and treatment are vital.

“It has significant implications for early intervention with kids with autism,” says Kahng. “The sooner parents and practitioners can identify these symptoms and potentially diagnose kids with autism, the sooner the kids can start receiving treatment and the better off the child will be.”

Kahng says most significant, perhaps, is that those carrying out the study were able to identify symptoms of autism in children so young.

“As a behavioral researcher, the idea of intervening at such an early age is very, very exciting,” says Kahng. “It’s something that myself or my colleagues would love to pursue.”

He could have the chance to pursue it. Kahng says more study must be undertaken of larger groups – only seven babies were involved in UC-Davis’ study.

“Until researchers are able to have larger studies that demonstrate a broader change in symptoms, we’re still a little cautious to say, ‘Yes, this is a great method of preventing these symptoms from occurring,’” says Kahng.

Read more about UC-Davis’ findings on the University’s website.

New words will cost Missouri counties thousands (AUDIO)

Twenty-one words are going to cost Missouri Counties tens of thousands of dollars.

They’re the words the legislature left out of its ballot title for the early voting proposal that will be on the November ballot.  A state appeals court says early voting will happen “but only if the legislature and the governor appropriate and disburse funds to pay for the increased costs of such voting.”

Election authorities in every county who already had ballots printed, now have to reprint them and include those 21 words.

Atchison County Clerk Suzette Taylor, the president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, has checked the printers who produce ballots throughout the state and has found two-thirds of the November ballots will have to be reprinted–a hard blow to county budgets this late in the year.

Her costs might be as low as $500-$1,000.  But she says the big counties such as Jackson, St. Louis, and Greene could be facing $75,000 to $100,000 in unexpected costs. The state does not reimburse counties for costs of statewide elections.

Taylor calls the situation “terrible” because of the cost and because military ballots start going out today and absentee voting starts Tuesday.

The issue is expected to become the primary topic when her association meets next week.

AUDIO: Taylor interview 4:35