The call came into my voicemail Monday morning, November 17.
"I'm calling to give you the exclusive rights to a standoff with the government," the voice said. "I'm not going to leave my house. They're jamming me up again… after all this nonsense that I've been through already, I'm just going to say no. I've got everything rigged. Even if they try to get in, it will take hours. This might get good. Call me."
The caller left no name, but I knew who it was. I picked up the receiver and dialed Joseph Principe in the Bronx. A former Army Ranger and U.S. Bureau of Prisons employee, Principe has undergone some startling transformations since he started working as a correctional officer at ADX, the supermax penitentiary outside of Florence. He went from guarding some of the most dangerous gang members in the country to being indicted with them, in a sprawling conspiracy case against the Aryan Brotherhood that I wrote about in a 2005 feature, "Bringing Down the Brotherhood."
I had first met Principe eight years ago, while researching another story about gang intrigues and a secret snitch unit at ADX, "A Broken Code." He struck me as a smart but troubled guy with an authority problem, one that put him on the wrong side of BOP brass and may have got him railroaded into the middle of a messy federal case against the AB. Although he's also done time on a menacing conviction, I was never convinced that Principe was the bad man the government said he was; the evidence that he'd "conspired" to help gang members inside the nation's toughest prison was slim, at best. But he took a plea deal in the case under duress and proved to be a much better convict than he ever was a guard.
For the past couple of years, Principe has been on parole in New York and seemingly doing well. He was working with veterans and acquiring tattoos. We chatted once in a while, usually about the book he was trying to write about his experiences on both sides of the bars. But lately things seemed to be going all wrong; authorities were insisting that he report to a federal parole officer as well as a state one, and he felt his world coming apart at the seams.
He told me as much when I called him back that Monday morning. The parole officer was going to come Thursday, he said, and he had barricaded the doors and would refuse to leave. He was tired of the shifting terms of his parole. He would rather go back to prison. When I told him that seemed like a drastic solution, he snapped, "I'm a shaman. I can find my bliss anywhere."
We talked around and around the same issue. He didn't sound sober, but he denied drinking or taking anything. Drunk or high parolees can say a lot of things they don't mean. He didn't say anything, though, that sounded like he was planning violence -- just a barricade. I urged him to think hard about what he was doing and told him we would talk again soon. I told him I didn't want the exclusive story. I wanted him to be walking around on the outside, a free man.
"You're beautiful," he said. "Do you really think you're free? We live in a police state."
I didn't argue. I just wanted him to sober up so we could talk this through. But we never had the chance.
On Tuesday morning, November 18, I received a phone call from a producer at CBS News whom I'd introduced to Principe. He told me he'd just received a couple of bizarre e-mails from Joe, who declared that he was "making [his] last stand." While I was still digesting this, I had to switch from the producer to another incoming call -- with a Bronx area code. It was a New York City police detective, camped outside Principe's house. The standoff was indeed under way.
A parole officer had come to Principe's house sooner than he expected. He refused to let the officer in, and police were summoned. Soon the streets were sealed off, and Principe's phone disconnected. The detective asked what I knew about Principe, who had apparently given him my number and told him that I was "the general who knows my history."
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I didn't quite know what to say. The whole situation seemed too ridiculous to be real. Should I tell him that Joe was a shaman and was just seeking his bliss? Should I tell him to get the parole people to back off and Principe would probably do the same? Or maybe I should try to explain some of the bitter disappointments Principe had experienced since he got out -- looking for jobs that weren't there; jumping through hoops and peeing in cups; seeing his book rejected by agent after agent; getting interviewed by 60 Minutes for an expose on ADX, only to have the entire interview cut from the aired segment; straying over the state line, getting revoked for sixty days to Riker's Island (which he boasted was a "vacation" after the time he'd spent in federal lockdown) and trying to pick up the pieces all over again; finding out the feds wanted him to do yet another parole on top of the one he was already doing.
We stumbled through the conversation. The detective rang off. He never called back. Bare news reports on New York TV stations talked about helicopters and street closures in the Baychester section of the Bronx and a former prison guard defying police SWAT teams.
The details I have now are sketchy and unofficial. It appears that the siege ended late this morning, after about 24 hours of waiting around. It was reported that Principe was armed and had hung the American flag in the window, upside down. It was said that he threatened to blow the place up if cops tried to force their way in. And this morning, news came that the suspect jumped from a window, landed head first and was rushed away to a hospital with a fractured skull. Police supposedly found an "arsenal" of weapons inside the house, whatever that might be.
Little of this can be confirmed at this point. The NYPD press office is releasing hardly any information yet. I don't know what's true. I just know it all sounds like a damn waste, the kind of situation where everyone breathes a sigh of relief because the only person that got hurt was the one whose life just blew up. -- Alan Prendergast