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Freed female prison officer 'exceptionally strong'

'They would have killed me,' ex-hostage says

Inmates Steven J. Coy, left, and Rickey K. Wassenaar held a female prison guard hostage for 15 days.
Inmates Steven J. Coy, left, and Rickey K. Wassenaar held a female prison guard hostage for 15 days.

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PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- The spirit of the female corrections officer -- freed Sunday night by two inmates, who held her for 15 days in a guard tower -- is "exceptionally strong," an Arizona official said after the ordeal ended.

The inmates surrendered peacefully after releasing their hostage and are in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons until they are transferred to another prison, said Dora Schriro, director of the Department of Corrections. She promised "vigorous" prosecution.

As the officer was being transported to the hospital Sunday, she spoke to Gov. Janet Napolitano.

"She said basically, 'Thank you for not leaving me. Thank you for not rushing the tower. They would have killed me,' " Napolitano said.

A male guard held hostage was released January 24, with minor injuries. Neither guard was identified.

Describing the female officer, Schriro said: "Her voice is exceptionally strong. She was very focused about wanting to communicate a number of things."

"I would characterize her spirit as exceptionally strong, and to the eyes she looks well."

Schriro added: "This was an extraordinarily difficult -- extremely difficult -- situation in which we found ourselves.

"Towers are designed and equipped and constructed not to be taken. And there we were with the challenge of taking the tower without the loss of life -- the life of our officers and those who would come to rescue her."

Schriro said nothing special was done to end the standoff that had not been tried since it began.

For those who would question where the blame lies in the standoff, Schriro said, the fact that "our officers were taken and put in a tower and kept in a tower for 15 days is the responsibility of two people and two people alone."

The prisoners, Rickey K. Wassenaar and Steven J. Coy, each have a 28-year criminal history, according to corrections officials.

"They surrendered according to a negotiated plan," said Cam Hunter, public information officer for the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis in Buckeye. The corrections officer was released first.

The three came down from the multistory guard tower about 6:20 p.m. (8:20 p.m. ET), said Hunter.

"There were days and evenings when we thought we were close and we weren't quite there," she said of the negotiating process.

Wassenaar, 40, was serving a 28-year term for aggravated assault, and Coy, 39, was serving a life term for aggravated and sexual assault, sexual abuse, armed robbery and kidnapping, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

There was a "collective sigh of relief" as the standoff came to an end, Hunter added. The negotiations involved the Department of Corrections, and other state, federal and local agencies.

Schriro said officials will concentrate on securing the tower, gathering evidence from the crime scene and investigating the hostage-taking.

The standoff is one of the longest prison-hostage incidents in U.S. history.

It began about 2:30 a.m. January 18 after Coy and Wassenaar were released from their cells to work in the kitchen. There, they overpowered a correctional officer and civilian food service worker. Both inmates were armed with shanks, or homemade knives.

Wassenaar forced the kitchen guard to disrobe and put on his uniform. The inmates then restrained the officer and civilian worker. The rest of the inmate work crew was forced into a storage area.

Wassenaar shaved his head, before buzzing the watch tower being guarded by the two officers who were taken hostage. Wassenaar, wearing the guard's uniform, was allowed into the tower area.

Coy, after confrontations with several officers, ran into the prison yard as Wassenaar fired from the base of the tower. Both men then entered the structure.

During negotiations, the inmates requested several items, including pizza, cigarettes and hygiene products. A Department of Public Safety robot was used to deliver the items. Wassenaar requested a helicopter, and asked to be interviewed on radio as a term of his surrender.

Both corrections hostages appeared on the tower roof several times so they could be assessed from the ground by medical personnel.

Sunday afternoon, one of the inmates fired a "less-than-lethal" weapon from the observation tower, a state official said. No one was injured, and Corrections Department spokesman Alan Ecker told reporters he couldn't say what the weapon was.

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