In the wake of the terrorist attack on America, Donald Wyrick of Jefferson City, a retired warden of the Missouri Penitentiary in Jefferson City, is ready to volunteer his services in any effort to boost homeland security.
At age 73, Wyrick walks five miles a day and lifts weights every other day. "I feel good and I'm still in pretty good condition," Wyrick says.
It wouldn't be the first time that Wyrick has been pressed into service in recent years.
Wyrick was asked recently for his assistance in cleaning up the corrupt operation of the Miller County jail in his hometown of Tuscumbia.
Wyrick's assistance was requested at the jail after the Miller County sheriff was ousted from office and several jail deputies had been prosecuted for corruption.
Tuscumbia officials thought of Wyrick first when it came time to restore order at the jail.
Wyrick had earned a reputation as a firm but fair warden at the main prison in Jefferson City. He had worked his way up through the ranks as a corrections officer.
"When I was asked to shape up the jail in Miller County, I told them I would accept the job on two conditions: That I would do it my way, and the job would be only temporary," Wyrick said.
Wyrick rounded up a half-dozen retired corrections officers on his staff who were experienced in the technique of "shaking down" the prison—or searching the entire prison complex for weapons, illegal drugs and other contraband.
The group of seasoned retirees met in Jefferson City to discuss their plan. They drove to Tuscumbia in a surprise raid on the jail and found an incredible amount of drugs and other contraband.
"The jail had no rules and regulations. The rule was whatever whim the officer on duty had at any given time. The deputies in charge left areas unlocked and they didn't count the prisoners each night. The officers told me there was no need to count them because they weren't going anywhere," Wyrick said.
The jail inmates had no diversions other than one television set. Wyrick drove to Eldon and bought playing cards and board games, such as dominoes and checkers. He also used his own money to buy personal hygiene products for women inmates.
"I knew that I could not pop in during the day and reorganize the jail properly. I was there during all three shifts almost every day. I spent from 12 to 16 hours a day at the jail learning what was going on. I also prepared policies and procedures for the jail," Wyrick said.
One family brought in new shoes for an inmate. Wyrick noticed a heel seemed a little misshapen. He knocked the heel off and found it full of dope.
"Many of the inmates were wearing steel-toed shoes. I got rid of those because they could be a dangerous weapon. It was a lot less dangerous for them to be wearing shower thongs in the summer than those steel-toed shoes," Wyrick said.
"We also found hack saw blades and bars that had been sawed," Wyrick said.
The guards were dressed slovenly and had long hair and beards. "Some of them were as bad or worse than most of the inmates," Wyrick said.
"The jail was fairly new and it is an excellent facility. It was a shame that it had been operated in such a disgusting way," Wyrick said.
Wyrick began running the Miller County jail on April 6th. The man Wyrick had suggested to run for sheriff, Bill Abbott, won the election. Wyrick had known Abbott well. When Wyrick headed the state prison, he had hired Abbott to work for him as a corrections officer.
After the election for the new sheriff in Miller County was over, Wyrick had the jail operating efficiently. "It had only about 100 inmates, and to he honest, I was bored stiff. When I left the main prison in Jefferson City as warden there were 2,682 inmates in custody," Wyrick said.
Wyrick resigned as head of the Miller County jail on Aug. 26th. He said it was a pleasure to assist the people in Tuscumbia, where he was born on Nov. 2, 1928.
After graduating from Tuscumbia High School, Wyrick joined the Army at age 19—just two years after the end of World War II. He spent three years in the Army assigned to landing crafts stationed at the Solomon Islands in western Pacific near New Guinea.
Wyrick then worked in factories and began playing country music. "For two years I had my own country music radio show on KRMS in Osage Beach," Wyrick said.
"I had wanted to join the Highway Patrol but I couldn't because I had tattoos," Wyrick said. Wyrick then began working at the main prison as a corrections officer. "I got only $227 a month to start. But from the first day I started working there, I knew I liked the job," Wyrick said.
"Based on what other inmates have told me later, l believe Ray had intended to kill King the day he escaped."
By working hard and studying for competitive examinations, Wyrick advanced rapidly. He was made a sergeant in 1960, a lieutenant in 1964 and a captain in 1965.
In 1969, Wyrick was promoted to associate warden when Fred Wilkenson was the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Harold Swenson was the warden when Wyrick was his assistant. Both Wilkenson and Swenson were retired officials with the federal prison system.
Earlier, Wilkenson was in charge of a secret exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Able for U.S. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers on a dark night on a bridge in Berlin.
"Working with Swenson and Wilkinson was better than getting a college education. They were masters at penal administration. They also knew how to handle inmates effectively," Wyrick said.
Wyrick became the warden in 1974 and, served for 10 years in the office. The last two years he had been promoted to director of adult institutions.
He retired on March 31, 1987, at age 57.
Both corrections officers and inmates respected Wyrick. He was able to walk throughout the prison unescorted at any time.
He could take anyone through the prison on tours and the inmates would be courteous and never say anything when his back was turned to them.
During hot summer days, inmates sweltered in the stone cells at night. The stone picked up the heat of the day and held it in during the still summer nights.
To give the inmates some relief, Swenson and Wyrick arranged to have big bins of ice available to the inmates. "It didn't cost much because we already had the ice makers. It was just a matter of a little extra electricity used to run the ice makers. The inmates really appreciated the ice more than you can imagine," Wyrick said.
However, in no sense could you ever accuse Wyrick of coddling inmates. He made sure their legitimate health needs were met, but he would not tolerate rule breakers.
Wyrick has numerous pieces of art the inmates gave to him. Some of the drawings refer to him as "Bull Dog," a reference to his tenacity and effectiveness in dealing with inmates.
Wyrick made sure he talked with inmates frequently. He had a skill that caused many inmates to tell him when escape attempts or guns were smuggled into the prison.
Many of the inmates, especially those serving long terms, didn't want trouble. They knew the prison would be locked down when violence erupted. Their chances of being injured or killed during violence also went up. They also valued their routine that allowed them to move about.
Wyrick received a wealth of information but he gave no favors in return. The inmates didn't really expect much in return. Wyrick and the inmates knew that if any inmate suddenly started receiving extra privileges he would be suspected for passing information to the prison administrators. It wouldn't be good for either the administration or the inmate.
"I can remember at least a half dozen escape attempts we thwarted because of information we received," Wyrick says.
"One day one of the inmates motioned to me and mentioned that I might want to check out a sack in the yard. It included about 700 rounds of live ammunition," Wyrick said.
Wyrick also recalls how guns also made it into the prison. An homemade shotgun was fashioned from pipes. It was broken down into three parts that wouldn't be noticed until all three were assembled.
When Wyrick was warden, he made sure the inmates knew about the most undesirable prisons in the nation to serve a sentence. A warden in Arizona was known to be especially stern, and it was extremely hot in the desert prison. Inmates in Arkansas had to work on chain gangs with tough manual labor.
Spreading the word about these places coupled with an interstate compact that allowed prisons to exchange prisoners was important. Prison administrators around the nation could break up prison gangs by transferring the inmates to other states. Arizona would send an inmate to Missouri and Missouri at some point would send Arizona an inmate in return whenever the need arose.
Through the prison grapevine, Wyrick learned an especially tough inmate sentenced to a lifetime murder-for-hire term had smuggled a gun into the prison. Wyrick ordered the inmate brought into his private office. Wyrick told the inmate that prison administrators knew he had a pistol. The inmate strongly denied the claim.
Wyrick said it didn't matter because the inmate would never go back to his cell and he would never see the pistol again. "I can send you this minute to Arizona unless you turn over the pistol to me tonight," Wyrick told the inmate.
The inmate pondered life in the feared Arizona prison and realized he had only one option. "You drive a tough bargain, warden," he said.
That night Wyrick went down to the chow line and began talking to the inmate standing in a corner. The inmate slipped the pistol to the warden and two other corrections officers. Wyrick quickly stuffed the pistol inside his pants under his belt in order to conceal it. "Warden, be careful," the inmate cautioned, "That thing is loaded."
"It was an undercover .38 police special," Wyrick said. "To this day, I don't know how he got it into the prison. But the important thing is we got it away from him before he could use it."
"While I was there, we found at least five guns in the prison," Wyrick said.
Wyrick said he believed it was important to spend about 90 percent of his time with about 10 percent of the inmates. He knew which ones were aware of secret plots hatched by inmates, especially between rival white and black gangs.
Wyrick said James Earl Ray, who was convicted of murdering civil rights leader Martin Luther King, escaped from the Missouri prison by hiding inside a bread container under loaves of bread in a bread truck that regularly delivered bread at the prison.
Wyrick learned years later that another inmate had been planning to use the bread truck to escape. The inmate indicated a white gang in the prison had been watching King on television and decided to get together a lot of money from outside connections to arrange for his assassination. They gave the money to Ray and promised to smuggle him out of the prison if Ray would agree to murder King in exchange for his freedom.
No one knows if the story is true or not. But somehow Ray, not known as a sophisticated criminal, made his way all the way to England on a fake passport before he was captured.
Inmates love to embellish stories after the fact—like war stories or big fish tales.
However, Wyrick said the information about the prison gang plot came from a highly reliable inmate whose other information had been correct. Ray's escape came the day before another inmate, known as an escape artist, had planned to use the same technique to escape. The gang had pre-empted the escape artist's planned escape.
"To this day, I don't know much about it," Wyrick said, "Ray never would talk to me. I spoke with him only one time when he was at the prison and he wasn't interested in talking with me. But based on what other inmates have told me later, I believe Ray had intended to kill King the day he escaped from the Missouri prison," Wyrick said.
Wyrick said Ray later wrote he had escaped another way by climbing over a wall at a certain point by using a metal protrusion. "But that was removed two years before Ray escaped. I know he went out in that bread truck. The officer simply failed to check it properly," Wyrick said.
Wyrick said the bread truck's routine was to travel from the main prison to the former Renz prison farm located across the Missouri River just north of Jefferson City.
Wyrick reasons that Ray listened for changes in the traffic sound when the bread truck was going over the bridge. Just after crossing the bridge, there was a stop sign.
By the time he was missed in the prison, Ray had made his escape complete.
Over the years, Wyrick learned a lot about dangers that lurk around corners at the "walls," a term inmates use for the main prison in Jefferson City.
Shortly after he was hired as corrections officer, an incident occurred that Wyrick never forgot. He remembers the exact date and time of the event.
"It was 1:20 p.m. on Sept. 19, 1959," Wyrick says with a wry grin. Wyrick had noticed three inmates in the yard were wearing white shirts who normally did not wear white because they were not assigned to the kitchen or medical department. He began to watch them closely and noticed that they had passed something to each other and it appeared they had been digging in the ground.
Wyrick asked his fellow officers to help him shake them down immediately to find out what was going on. But more seasoned fellow officers said it would be better to keep on watching them and wait until they caught the inmates in the act.
But as an eager young corrections officer, Wyrick was frustrated. He decided to shake them down on his own. He accosted the three men. They grabbed him. One of the inmates placed a knife next to his rib cage and another put a straight-edged razor next to his throat.
"I thought I was dead. All I could think about was how my wife was going to explain to my children how this could have happened," Wyrick said.
Fortunately, the inmates decided to use him as a hostage. They decided to go to the captain's office to negotiate.
The captain, however, came to his office area with a shotgun. He shot two of the inmates. As the captain began shooting, Wyrick and one of the inmates bolted for an open doorway. They both arrived at the same time and couldn't get through. "I hit him as hard as I could in the mouth. I made it through the door and he went back and picked his teeth up from the floor and put his teeth in his pocket before he surrendered. I thought at the time that it was odd that he put his teeth in his pocket. Maybe he knew what he was doing," Wyrick said.
Wyrick said one of the main reasons he was able to keep a lid on the prison was the willingness of Cole County prosecutors to prosecute crimes that occurred in the prison.
"Without their help, it would have been extremely difficult to keep things under control during those years when we had more than 2,000 inmates at the main prison," Wyrick said.
Wyrick spent 27 years at the Department of Corrections. After retiring in 1987 as director of adult institutions, Wyrick was asked to manage a private corporation that operated half-way houses for criminals making the transition from prison to release. The firm was owned by Jerry Williams of Kansas City.
"He was a fine young man. He gave me a new car and a penthouse apartment in Kansas City," Wyrick said. But Williams was electrocuted when he touched a power line while operating a personal watercraft at the Lake of the Ozarks.
With Williams' death, Wyrick's job managing the half-way houses ended.
"After that I returned to fishing and playing music. But you can do only so much of that. I then worked for a while as a security officer at Capital Region Medical Center," Wyrick said.
Wyrick is now back to fishing and playing music.
"If there's something out there for me to do to assist in homeland security," Wyrick said, "I'd be ready."