Sheriff  Robert Austino   Elected 2009

 

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An eyewitness account of the violent takeover and attempted escape from the Cumberland County Jail, in Bridgeton, NJ on Saturday June 2, 1979.

 

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Show at the County Fairgrounds and the usual summer activities were just beginning another season.

Midway in it's trip through Bridgeton, State Highway 49 passes the Cumberland County Jail. At 6:30 A.M. the officers had just finished feeding the inmates their breakfast and as they were retrieving the breakfast trays they, no doubt, were making plans for their weekend with their families. They had no idea of just how much their lives were about to change.

Aerial View of the Cumberland County Jail, June 1979

In the "New" Jail, the second floor section that housed inmates that were charged with serious offenses, Frank Hudnall and Anthony D'Argenzio were finishing their shift. Their tour had begun at midnight and their relief would arrive at 8:00 A.M. The officers were in the process of picking up the trays when D'Argenzio was attacked by several inmates. Within seconds he was overpowered and the inmates had his keys.

Hudnall ran to the Officer's Office, locking the door behind him. He called to the first floor and alerted Officer Gary Bevans that their was a major problem in the New Jail. Bevans immediately locked the elevators, isolating the jail from the rest of the building, including another 60 inmates in the "Old" Jail.

As Hudnall was speaking to Bevans on the phone many of the sixty inmates being housed in the New Jail were being released from their cells. Two of the inmates that had overpowered D'Argenzio attempted to open the office door and capture Hudnall. Hudnall had the door locked in such a fashion that the keys would not open it from the outside. The inmates attempted to break the Lexan windows in the office with a fire extinguisher, but the material did it's job and held.

The office located on the second floor of the New Jail, June 1979

Inmate Jerome Harvey, the ringleader of the uprising, who was already serving more than one life term, then had Officer D'Argenzio brought to the office. He held D'Argenzio, who had now been bound with telephone wire, up to the window and told Hudnall that he would beat D'Argenzio to death before his eyes if he did not open the door.

Hudnall relented and opened the door. The inmates now had two hostages and the bargaining chips that they needed to make their escape from the jail. Meanwhile Officer Bevans was making phone calls to Sheriff George Castellini and the top ranking officers of the department.

Bevans also called the Bridgeton Police Department and advised them of the situation. Within minutes the jail was surrounded by armed officers from the Sheriff's Department and the Bridgeton Police Department. Lieutenant Dennis Flukey arrived at the jail and the negotiations began. Jerome Harvey was the self appointed spokesman and he began to tell Flukey what the inmates wanted, punctuating each demand with a threat to the hostages.

The Bridgeton Police Chief, Richard Gauntt, arrived on the scene and a decision was made to have his department deal with the exterior of the jail while the Sheriff' Officers would handle the interior. Off duty Sheriff's personnel began to arrive at the jail, they were stationed throughout the building, ready to move in when the command was given. Meanwhile Bridgeton Police S.W.A.T. Officers began to take up positions on the perimeter. Traffic was rerouted from the streets surrounding the jail and the area was sealed off for blocks in every direction. Foot traffic was difficult to stop though, and soon the area was lined with curious spectators.

The Hillcrest Tavern, located across the street from the county jail, June 1979

The negotiations continued inside, Harvey was demanding that the officers outside be removed immediately and that cars provided for their escape be parked in front of the jail. There were no demands made for better living conditions or more food, these men wanted freedom and they made it clear that they would do anything to achieve their goal.

Harvey was being held at the jail in order for him to appear in the Cumberland County Courts on an offense committed in that county. He had already been sentenced to double life for homicide and was only in the jail temporarily, having been brought to the jail from the maximum security State Prison in Trenton. Two of his accomplices, inmates Hughes and Shephard, had been apprehended recently while in the process of committing an armed robbery at a bank in Bridgeton. All three of the conspirators were from northern New Jersey.

Lt. Flukey had been permitted to speak to both of the captive officers, they both told him that they were in grave danger and that they felt that their lives were in jeopardy. It was becoming painfully clear that these men were not going to be rescued without the spilling of blood. It was apparent to every officer that ultimately deadly force was going to be needed to retake the jail.

Chief Gauntt set up plans for an assault on the jail. The code word "Cherry Blossom" was to be used if the assault was necessary. All officers were briefed and told that they were to shoot to kill if need be. Snipers were positioned in the court house bell tower and in the second story of the Hillcrest Tavern, across Route 49, from the jail. The onlookers were moved back and out of danger and the standoff continued. Harvey continued to make his demands as Flukey attempted to buy time to enable Chief Gauntt time to get the perimeter set up and the officers inside to get into position.

Most of the other prisoners were now loose, some chose to stay in there cells and to not get involved. The jail was undergoing incredible damage. Sinks were torn out of the walls, chairs and benches were destroyed, video cameras and televisions were destroyed. Glass was broken from most of the windows and barricades were built in anticipation of an assault. There were two elevators that were used to access the New Jail, one had been locked open on the first floor by Officer Bevans and the other was disabled by the inmates by placing a large food cart in it in such a fashion that the doors would not close. The only other access to the jail was by way of three stairwells and the inmates did not have the keys for the doors leading to them.

Damage to the Jail

. .

Food cart in Elevator Doors

The inmates armed themselves with a variety of weapons as they roamed the halls of the jail. Some carried clubs made from broken tables and chairs. Other fashioned "shanks" out of sharpened pieces of metal taken from the overhead light fixtures in the jail. Inmates could be seen clearly as they roamed the floor, brazenly passing the smashed windows. The jail was theirs and they were daring us to try to take it back.

Broken Windows Looking Out

Chief Gauntt was working frantically to get everything in place. He had a marked Bridgeton Police car parked in front of the jail, the vehicle had about a gallon of gas in it, but the gas gauge was fixed to read that it was full. A Corrections Officer's vehicle was also parked at the curb for the inmates, but in an humorous touch, Harvey rejected it as a piece of junk. That officer takes a ribbing on that to this day.

When all was ready a key to the stairway was slipped under the door to Harvey by Sgt. Jerry Cohen. Harvey and Hughes then opened the door and came down to the first floor of the building. They failed to see any of the concealed officers. Hughes exited the building went to the police car. He got in it, tested the lights and siren and then drove it around the block. He returned to the jail and then reentered the building. Both prisoners then returned to the second floor.

The Shank that was held to Hudnall's Throat

A short time later the inmates again appeared in the stairway, but this time they had their hostages with them. Again Hughes was first, and again he went directly to the police car. Then Shephard appeared at the door with Officer Hudnall. Hudnalls hands were tied behind his back and he had torn sheets tied around his neck. Shephard was using Hudnall as a human shield, holding on to the bindings around his neck and hugging him from the rear. With his free hand, Shephard held a shank to Hudnall's throat. Shephard forced Hudnall to walk out the door and down a grassy slope. When they were about halfway between the jail and the car, Harvey started to make his move. Harvey held Officer D'Argenzio the same way as he exited the stairway and began moving towards the front door of the jail.

Chief Gauntt gave the code word, "Cherry Blossom" and the command to go ahead with the assault, the concealed officers prepared to move in.

There seemed to be only one obstacle in Shephard's path. A retaining wall was at the bottom of the grassy slope, at the sidewalk. The grassy knoll led to the top of the wall and there was then a three foot drop to the sidewalk.

The Front of the Jail

When Shephard and Hudnall reached the wall Hudnall was forced to jump down to the sidewalk, leaving Shephard exposed to the marksmen. When Hudnall jumped, they fired.

Shephard was hit by several rounds and fell to the ground, releasing his grip on Hudnall who ran across the street to safety. Shephard was mortally wounded and died on that grassy slope.

The Marksman's View

Harvey had Officer D'Argenzio in a hallway near the foyer to the county jail. When he heard the shots he started to drag him back towards the stairway. Sheriff's Sergeant Jim Johnson then fired at Harvey with an M-2 Carbine, but in the narrow hallway D'Argenzio was hit instead. One of Johnson's rounds hit D'Argenzio in the ankle and he then went down on the floor. Harvey then bolted and ran past two other inmates who had followed him down the steps. All three then ran up the stairs and back into the New Jail, pursued by several Sheriff's Officers.

The Scene Where Officer D'Argenzio was Hit

At this point numerous officers were entering the jail from multiple entry points, they then began to take the jail back. As one of those officers entered a hallway he encountered an inmate carrying a heavy, wooden chair leg. The prisoner was ordered to drop his weapon but he continued advancing on the officer. At that point the officer lowered his shotgun and fired. The inmate fell, the rifled slug ending his life. The slug then ricocheted off of a wall and struck another inmate in the buttocks

As the officers spread out through the jail, they found Harvey hiding in one of the cell blocks, he was handcuffed and all prisoners were secured. The incident had taken a little more than three hours and the officers had succeeded in retaking the jail, the building was, once again, secure.

 


 

EPILOGUE

The events leading up to the incident and the actions taken by the Bridgeton Police Officers, Sheriff's Officers and Corrections Officers that day were investigated by the New Jersey State Police Major Crimes Unit. Their investigation revealed that all officers involved acted properly and the amount of force used was necessary.

Officers Hudnall and D'Argenzio remained with the Sheriff's Department for a period of time after the incident, but both eventually found employment in other fields. D'Argenzio was hospitalized for a short while and did recover from his wound.

Nine months after the attempted escape, Jerome Harvey was sentenced to an additional 18 years in prison. News reports, at the time, said the prisoner appeared in court under heavy guard.

 


 

This site was published, on the twentieth anniversary of the incident. The account is drawn from the memory of the author and statements taken from others that were involved.

The opening wave is a copy of the actual radio transmissions from that day.

The site was created in an attempt to remind the public of the dangers faced by our officers on a daily basis. It's purpose is also to be used as a reminder to all officers that you are always at risk.

Stay Alert and Stay Alive!

The author wishes to thank Sheriff Michael F. Barruzza (2000 - 2008)  for his assistance in the creation of this web page.