By Dennis N. Griffin
Sometimes people find themselves in situations that require them to place themselves in harm's way in order to assist their fellow man. Las Vegas, Nevada, newsman Robert Stoldal found himself in that situation in August 1979. When asked, he answered the call.
At approximately nine o’clock on the morning of Saturday, August 25, 1979, inmates took control of the Clark County, Nevada, Jail Annex, located on the second floor of the Las Vegas City Hall complex on Stewart Avenue. This would be the longest siege ever handled by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. It was an incident that had all the ingredients of a Hollywood action movie: hardcore cons facing long sentences with little to lose; security equipment not working; procedures not followed and escape within the grasp of the inmates, although they didn’t know it. A future sheriff, Jerry Keller, a sergeant at the time, was the primary negotiator for the police side.
At that time, the Annex was used primarily to house sentenced prisoners—mostly felons awaiting transfer to the state prison system in Carson City. On this particular day, 84 inmates were assigned to the facility. Among them were Patrick McKenna, Felix Lorenzo, and Eugene Shaw. McKenna and Lorenzo had recently been transferred to the Annex after having been implicated in a plot to start a riot at the Clark County Detention Center.
McKenna was a 33-year-old white male with a long history of problems with the law. An escape artist and convicted rapist, he was serving three life sentences plus 75 years for sexually assaulting two women in Las Vegas in 1978. He was also facing a murder charge for killing his cellmate while housed in the Clark County Detention Center.
Lorenzo, a Latino, was 30 years old at the time. He’d been sentenced to 160 years in prison for numerous armed robberies. He’d taken hostages during his capers, and on one occasion held an off-duty Metro officer captive for a short period of time. He was no stranger to prison strife, having been incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State during the infamous riot in 1971.
Shaw, a 41-year-old black male, was another convicted armed robber, doing a 60-year sentence.
What these convicts did that morning was no spur of the moment act. On the contrary, it was a well-planned escape attempt devised after a careful study of guard activities and jail procedures. The plot included paying an inmate trustee to leave a security gate ajar that led to the gun lockers where correction officers stored their service weapons. The warning light that would have alerted the guard in the Control Booth of the open door had been out of service for some time due to a mechanical malfunction. Whether this was known by the prisoners or a matter of pure luck is unclear.
In addition to these three prisoners, the three correction officers on duty that day would play major roles in the incident as hostages. David Murray, age 35, Robert Hansen, 52, and William Melton, also 52, were all veteran officers with many years of experience.
At a few minutes after nine that morning, Eugene Shaw completed mopping the floor of the cellblock in which he, Lorenzo, and McKenna were housed. Officer Hansen was observing Shaw through the glass panel of the cellblock’s locked security door. The officer later said that he’d never seen any of the inmates in that particular block work so hard.
Another door allowing access to the hallway outside the cellblock door was unlocked and open. Although contrary to policy and procedure, this door was apparently routinely left unsecured.
Inmate Shaw advised Hansen that he had finished his work and the cleaning materials could be removed from the cellblock. He pushed the nearly full mop pail toward the security door.
Hansen opened the door without first locking the inmates in their cells. He then bent over to grab the heavy bucket and lift it over the raised threshold. As he did, Shaw said, “Here, that’s heavy; let me give you a hand.”
Using this ruse, Shaw approached the stooped-over guard and struck him on the back of the neck. Before he fell, Hansen was able to reach up and activate an alarm button in a control panel next to the door.
Inmate Lorenzo, who had been in the cellblock’s day room, joined Shaw and finished overpowering Hansen, beating the officer until he was nearly unconscious. Correction Officer Murray, responding to the alarm, was also taken hostage.
Lorenzo removed the key to the gun locker from Hansen’s pocket and exited the cellblock. Crouching low to avoid detection by the security cameras, he arrived at the gun-locker gate, which the trustee accomplice had left open. In a few seconds, he had possession of Hansen’s 9 mm semi-automatic pistol. After arming himself, Lorenzo located the remaining guard, William Melton, in the booking area and took him prisoner at gunpoint. The Annex was now entirely in the control of the criminals.
Joined by McKenna, the three inmates stripped the guards, donned their uniforms and were ready for their escape. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t realize that the elevator located next to the gun lockers and controlled from the main Control Booth would have taken them to the first floor and freedom. Instead, they attempted to exit the front jail entrance, but were blocked by detectives who had responded to the alarm activated by Officer Hansen. The inmates retreated back into the interior of the jail where the captured guards had been left handcuffed. The escape attempt was aborted and the incident turned into a hostage situation.
After letting a few selected inmates whom they trusted out of their cells, the three ringleaders returned to the gun lockers. They retrieved the service weapons of Officers Murray and Melton, along with a .380 semi-automatic pistol. This gave the bad guys an arsenal of four handguns, three loaded 9 mm magazines, and a box of ammunition for the .380.
As they searched through the facility, they came across something almost as valuable to them as the weapons: a complete department Policy & Procedure Manual. While watching for police activity on the TV monitors covering the entrances, the convicts could now read about how the cops planned to respond to various jail incidents, how SWAT units would be deployed, and the techniques that might be used by Metro negotiators.
Outside the jail, uniformed personnel quickly contained the exterior of the building; two six-man SWAT teams were put into position in the corridor outside the jail entrance and elsewhere in the immediate area.
The recently created Hostage Negotiation Team made contact with the inmates via the cellblock phone system. Felix Lorenzo identified himself as the spokesman for the convicts; Patrick McKenna was later identified as the “security chief.” For the next several hours, Lorenzo refused to discuss a resolution to the standoff directly with the police. Instead, he insisted on face-to-face meetings with specific local newsmen and attorneys whom he felt could be trusted more than the lawmen. The situation remained deadlocked until the police agreed to arrange for the requested third-party mediators.
Each side had concerns about the other that needed to be resolved before meetings could begin. The cops were afraid that the mediator could be a tempting target for the inmates to add to their cache of hostages. The inmates worried about a forced entry by a SWAT team and that their negotiator might get picked off or captured during the negotiating sessions.
To discourage a police assault, the felons periodically moved their hostages around, handcuffing them in close proximity to various points of entry.
The safety of the negotiators was addressed in a mutual agreement. A table was placed half in and half out of the jail-entrance door. This allowed the inmate negotiator—either Lorenzo or McKenna—to sit at the enclosed end of the table with limited exposure. The civilian mediator would remain in the open and be less apt to be harmed or taken prisoner by the convicts.
For further protection of the mediator, the police assigned a marksman to a position in a nearby parking structure whenever meetings were in progress. Overlooking the negotiating table at a distance of about 25 yards, the sniper was under instructions to shoot if it appeared the third party was in danger of being harmed or taken prisoner. As an additional precaution, several SWAT members were concealed in a stairwell close to the meeting site, ready to respond quickly to any threatening behavior by the inmates. A member of the Hostage Negotiation Team, too, was out of sight, but within earshot of the sessions.
Eighteen hours after taking control of the Annex, the inmates released a list consisting of 10 demands to Deputy Public Defender Tom Leen, one of the mediators approved by the convicts. They related to such things as the availability of a law library and medical services, improved visitation, phone calls, and food.
Most of these concerns had previously been brought to the attention of jail authorities through the appropriate channels and found to have some merit. Changes were in fact being developed at the time of the takeover.
While the police were preparing responses to the initial demands, they maintained phone contact with Lorenzo and McKenna. Just prior to noon on Sunday, McKenna asked for newspapers, inmate mail and medication.
At this point a second mediator was brought aboard. He was Bob Stoldal, News Director of KLAS-TV.
Thirty-two years later, Bob Stoldal still has vivid memories of his participation in the jail incident. He remembers that he was recruited as a mediator directly by Patrick McKenna.
“I was at the TV station when the phone rang; it was Patrick. He identified himself and the situation. I’d never met him before, but I knew his father. He said he knew who I was and that he wanted a member of the media to act as an intermediary between the inmates and the police. We discussed the issue and I agreed to come down to the jail, which I did,” the reporter says.
Stoldal's involvement was acceptable to Metro. He had a good relationship with them, having covered the cop beat for several years. They knew him personally, and his mother had worked in the records section of the former Las Vegas Police Department.
By accepting McKenna's offer, the reporter placed himself in a very dangerous situation. His role would place him face to face with armed convicts with little or no concern for his well-being. They could kill him or attempt to take him hostage at their whim. And if the bad guys did make a move on him, he could very well become a victim of friendly fire by the law enforcement personnel assigned to protect him. In spite of these risks, Stoldal entered the arena.
“The table where I met with the inmates was positioned so that they would be sitting inside the room and couldn’t get to me very easily. I stayed outside the room, leaving them about ten or twelve feet away from me and behind a high counter. That arrangement gave both of us some protection,” Stoldal recalls.
“I would take food up to the inmates and bring messages back to the officers, more of a messenger than a negotiator,” he continued. “I remember the first time I went up there alone to meet McKenna. I kept looking at him and asked if he was pointing a gun at me; he said he wasn’t. Since I didn’t see any upside to him shooting me, I tended to believe him. I don’t know how many trips I made up those stairs, but I’ll tell you that the walk up always seemed longer than the walk back.”
At one point, Metro wanted the inmates to show the newsman the hostages to verify their condition. “An image sticks in my mind of one of the guards being brought out behind the counter. I asked him how he was and he said he was okay. I remember he looked very scared and a little beat up,” Stoldal recalled.
“I don’t know as saying I felt threatened or afraid would be the right words,” he explained. “You kind of get in a zone during something like that. I do remember that I always looked directly at the inmates so as not to show any fear and be as calm as possible, as conversational as possible. About the middle of the second day, one of the members of the police negotiating team pulled me aside and kind of shook me. ‘You’ve got to be more careful,’ he warned me. He was concerned that I might be getting too friendly with the inmates. He wanted to remind me that these were the ‘bad guys’ and not to trust them. ‘It’s a matter of life or death,’ he said.”
Stoldal was aware of the sniper positioned in the parking garage and that he would be in the direct line of fire should the inmates make a move on him. He was under orders that if he felt threatened, he was to dive to his right behind a large metal trash container and crawl away. Thankfully, that never became necessary.
Years later, Stoldal joked with Jerry Keller, “Which way was I supposed to dive? I never could remember.”
As these meetings continued and the police pressed for the release of the captured guards, unbeknownst to Stoldal or the cops, things were deteriorating inside the jail. Although the inmates had allowed each of the hostages to telephone his family—viewed as a positive development— two of the ringleaders were in sharp disagreement over what to do next.
Felix Lorenzo reportedly wanted to kill Officer Murray over a previous altercation. Eugene Shaw was allegedly concerned about what Lorenzo and McKenna might do, and wanted to contain them so that he could surrender to the police.
At approximately 5:30 Monday morning, nearly 48 hours into the escape attempt, Sgt. Keller was on the phone with McKenna. The inmate was seated on the floor outside the door to the on-duty Sergeant’s Office. Officer Melton was handcuffed to a chair nearby. In a major breakthrough, Keller convinced McKenna to release Melton as a sign of good faith.
Just as Keller was cradling the handset, he heard the sound of gunshots over the phone and immediately called back. An inmate named Kuzman answered the phone. He advised Sgt. Keller that there had been a gunfight and that Shaw and Lorenzo were dead.
Kuzman was ordered to unload all weapons and surrender, an order with which he complied. McKenna stripped off the correction officer’s uniform he was wearing and walked out of the jail with Officers Hansen and Murray to surrender. Officer Melton, who had sustained a minor hand wound during the shootout, remained inside. SWAT personnel cleared the facility and all of the inmates were subsequently transferred to the Clark County Detention Center.
In the investigation that followed, physical evidence and interviews with personnel and inmates were used to reconstruct the final moments of the siege.
It was determined that while McKenna was negotiating by phone with Sgt. Keller, Shaw and Lorenzo became engaged in a violent argument in a corridor a few feet from McKenna’s location. Shooting erupted between the two, switching from position to position during the gunfight. Eventually, Lorenzo fell dead inside the Sergeant’s Office, but not before wounding Shaw. During the gunfire, Officer Melton suffered a bullet wound to his left hand.
With Lorenzo disposed of, Shaw turned his attention to McKenna, who was still inside the Sergeant’s Office. The inmates swapped bullets; McKenna’s aim was more accurate. Within a few seconds, Shaw joined Lorenzo as an ex-inmate.
Patrick McKenna was charged in Shaw’s death, but was acquitted. He did, however, receive an additional 92-year sentence for his role in the takeover. In 1980 he was convicted of murdering his cellmate while in the Clark County Detention Center.
Bob Stoldal continued his career as one of the most respected newsmen in Las Vegas. On June 30, 2008, he retired from KLAS-TV after 36 years there. He unretired a year later to become executive vice president of news at KVBC-TV in Las Vegas.
Dennis Griffin is a True Crime Author, Co-Host of Crime Wire and Real WiseguysonInside Lenz Network. He has written several books concentrating on the history of the mob presence in Las Vegas. www.dennisngriffin.com