By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Someone grabbed her from behind. Jeanette Bledsoe remembers it slowly and quietly, although that's not the way it happened. Someone grabbed her from behind, so she grabbed what was in front of her: bars. And she screamed. No words came out, but the dreadful noise traveled through the cell block and down the hall to the lieutenant's office. It didn't do any good, though. No one was close enough to help.
There was only one other correctional officer roving the pod of 84 death row cells at the Terrell Unit at 4:15 p.m. on February 21, and he was delivering food trays in another section. By the time he could get to her, Bledsoe was already being kicked and dragged into an adjacent dayroom. Within seconds, the balance of power had shifted. The caged had captured one of their keepers. They slammed the dayroom door shut, handcuffed the 57-year-old grandmother with her hands behind her back and shoved her down against a wall. Now she could see her assaulters: "Mr. Wilkerson and Mr. Guidry," as she calls them even today. She had just secured Ponchai Wilkerson in his cell and was escorting a handcuffed Howard Guidry to his "house" after recreation when she was grabbed.
Prison management discourages correctional officers from researching the criminal histories of their wards, so Bledsoe didn't know that Wilkerson had shot a jewelry store clerk in the head when he was just 18 years old and spent the last ten years on death row. She didn't know that 23-year-old Guidry had been convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme in which he lay in wait for his victim for over an hour. She didn't know that they had both been involved in the daring 1998 escape attempt at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, the very escape attempt that caused death row to be moved to the supposedly more secure Terrell Unit. She didn't know that Wilkerson was scheduled to die in only three weeks and had absolutely nothing to lose.
Out of the corner of her eye, Bledsoe saw a bag slide under the bars of the dayroom. Inside it was a shank, a metal rod from a typewriter that had been filed down to make it needle-sharp. Guidry picked up the shank; Wilkerson was already wielding Bledsoe's bean bar, a steel rod used by guards to open food slots in cell doors. They tied up her legs with the bag. She begged them not to hurt her and then started to pray: "Oh, dear God, just let me get out of here. Don't let them violate me in here, because all these officers are in here, all these inmates are watching. Please, dear God, do not let them rape me, or something like that. I, I just don't know what I'd do."
Responding to the call of "officer down," the guards had gathered outside the dayroom with canisters of pepper spray, stinger projectile rounds and two .357-caliber pistols. But thankfully, one familiar face wasn't among them. Bledsoe's son Biff was secured in the warden's office even before the Code Red was sounded. From there he called her other sons, their wives, her ex-husband and her sister-in-law. If he had been allowed to enter death row, she says, "anything could have happened."
Tensions were escalating anyway. "We are hopeful, but not overly optimistic," prison spokesman Larry Todd told the media. Inmates in cells near the dayroom were shouting suggestions as to what Wilkerson and Guidry should do with their uniformed hostage: beat her, rape her, kill her. "Why don't you just start at her toes and just break her toes and then go up and break her ankle and just break every bone, starting at the bottom of her feet up to her head?" Bledsoe remembers one saying. "Why don't you just kill that bitch?" They were agitating Wilkerson. He paced back and forth across the floor, taking off the top of his white jumpsuit and tying it around his waist.
Finally Terrell officials decided to send in two five-man teams to take control of the dayroom. Dressed in full riot gear, one team would fall on top of Bledsoe to protect her, and the other would subdue Wilkerson and Guidry with pepper spray and physical force. But before the teams could get near the barred door, Wilkerson and Guidry reacted. "I like to have fainted," says Bledsoe, "because they just jerked me up by my feet and slung me across the room and said, "If you come in here, we're gonna kill her.' One had the bean bar up over my head, and the other one had the thing he was gonna stick me with." When both the extraction teams and the inmates had backed off, Bledsoe looked at her lieutenant outside and said, "Y'all are gonna do me more harm than good."
If she was going to get out of this situation, Jeanette Bledsoe, a relative newcomer to prison life, would have to help herself. She didn't think she had paid much attention to her academy training three years ago, but she did remember that she should try to bond with her captors. She asked Wilkerson about his nine-year-old daughter and told him about her nine-year-old grandson. "I'm a part of y'all now," she said to him. "Your life is in danger, and my life is in danger. I'm not gray and you're not white anymore. We're just people." Wilkerson told her that his father, a retired sheriff's deputy, had said via telephone that Bledsoe had nothing to do with his situation, and he should let her go. When he talked to her, Wilkerson put the top of his jumpsuit back on and sat down.