Most people might need a minute or two to remember what they did for Thanksgiving 20 years ago. Not Alfredo Villoch.
A naturalized citizen who fled his native Cuba as a boy, Villoch embraced the holiday as a tradition of his adopted homeland. On that particular day in 1987, his mother and sister had come to Atlanta to spend the weekend with him and his wife.
But Villoch had more immediate concerns on his mind that day. Chief among them was staying alive.
On Thanksgiving Day that year, the prison accountant – who was 38 at the time – was being held hostage by hundreds of desperate Cuban detainees in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
He was unwashed, unshaven, dressed in the same clothes he'd worn to work the previous Monday, when the prison had erupted into riot. Thanksgiving came three days after the takeover, after Villoch had been herded from one wrecked building to another by inmates armed with homemade knives and machetes. He'd watched as the office building in the center of the ancient prison where he'd worked for six years was set on fire, its brick walls swelling from the heat and then bursting apart. He'd spent his days huddled in a dormitory with other hostages, guarded by inmates and surrounded by empty tin cans, broken glass and other debris. And he worried that, at any moment, the SWAT troops and federal agents stationed outside the prison walls would burst in with guns blazing.
At one point, Villoch was visited by a prisoner he recognized as a well-known psychotic who normally was confined to solitary. Having gone several days without his medication, the man was wide-eyed and jittery. He'd come to ask Villoch, a fellow Cuban, for advice on how to deal with the stress of the situation.
"He said, 'All this is really making me crazy,'" Villoch recalls. "And I thought, 'Oh, shit ...'"
But it was when smiling inmates brought out barbecued turkey to treat their hostages to a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner and then began to pass out Christmas cards that the reality of his predicament was hammered home for Villoch.
When the ordeal was finally over after 11 tense days, much of the prison was trashed and several buildings inside the walls lay in smoking ruins. The property loss was estimated at more than $35 million, with additional millions in government dollars going to relocate inmates, conduct investigations and pay disability for prison employees too shell-shocked by their experience as hostages to return to work.
During the standoff, Atlanta – and the rest of pre-Internet America – stayed glued to the evening news for updates. Would the feds storm the joint? Would the rest of the pen go up in flames? Would the Cubans free the hostages or kill them?
Officials at the Atlanta Federal Pen would prefer not to bring attention to a low point in its past: the longest prison takeover in U.S. history. They wouldn't allow employees who were taken as hostages to be interviewed by CL, nor would they open their historical archives.
The riot and hostage crisis of 1987 was only the latest episode of notoriety for a hulking behemoth of a prison known to its unwilling residents as the "Big A."
When it was completed in 1902, the wall – 37 feet high, 4 feet thick and enclosing a 23-acre compound – was the largest concrete structure in the world. It would hold that record until the construction of Boulder Dam in 1936. Sitting along a ridgeline in southeast Atlanta and ringed by guard towers, its vast façade of Stone Mountain granite ranks with the old Sears warehouse (now City Hall East) and the state Capitol among the city's most imposing edifices. As relics of Machine Age America, its cellblocks – four stories tall – are like sets straight out of a Jimmy Cagney movie.
It's a fitting venue for the rogue's gallery of infamous inmates who've passed through the Big A's gates over the decades. The list includes celebrated criminals such as Chicago gangster Al Capone, Mafia kingpin Vito Genovese and Boston mobster "Whitey" Bulger. It also housed such political prisoners as black nationalist Marcus Garvey and socialist Eugene V. Debs, who ran a presidential campaign from his cell. (He came in third with just less than a million votes.)
And the pen had its share of unique ne'er-do-wells: Frank Abagnale, the young con man portrayed in the film Catch Me if You Can; Denny McLain, the last major league pitcher to win 30 games; and Fred Tokars, the Marietta attorney who paid hitmen to murder his wife in front of their children.
Much like some of its occupants, the Big A has cheated death more than once. Outdated, overcrowded and run-down, it had long been considered the blackest hole in the American prison system. After a series of inmate killings in the '70s – including several Mob hits – it was scheduled by congressional decree to be closed by the mid-'80s.
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