Tips that an inmate’s wife planned to sneak a gun past a Maine State Prison metal detector, take hostages and free her husband helped authorities foil the scheme, the state corrections commissioner said Wednesday.
When Susan Watland, 47, of Jackson drove her 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier into the parking lot of the sprawling new prison Tuesday afternoon in Warren, state police were ready, arresting Watland face down on the pavement.
Inside her clothing was a .40-caliber Beretta handgun.
“She had 10 rounds of ammunition, the safety was off and she was ready to go,” said Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson in an interview in Augusta.
“It could have been an incredible tragedy – there could have been a major loss of life,” he said.
Watland remained in the Knox County Jail pending an appearance today in 6th District Court in Rockland. She has been charged with aiding an escape and trafficking in prison contraband.
She had been scheduled to meet in the prison visitors room with her husband, Gary Watland, 44, of Anson, who is serving a 25-year sentence for murder.
While Magnusson declined Wednesday to provide some details of the investigation, he said prison officials started picking up tips Sunday concerning a woman who planned to get a gun past the prison’s metal detector, take hostages and free her husband.
“This could have even included civilians, and the information was that they would be willing to shoot hostages to try and force us to let them out,” Magnusson said.
By Monday, Magnusson said, authorities knew who the inmate was and that the week’s schedule indicated Susan Watland was set to visit her husband Thursday. Later Monday, she suddenly changed the visit to Tuesday, forcing Magnusson, the Knox County District Attorney’s Office and a state police tactical team to scramble.
“We really didn’t have the final pieces of the information until 9:30 Tuesday morning,” Magnusson said. “We had to work quickly to get a search warrant. We knew that we couldn’t let her get into the lobby and that we had to stop her in the parking lot.”
The tactical team nabbed Susan Watland in the parking lot. The closest point from the lot to the prison entrance doors is about 250 feet. Once inside the prison, visitors must cross a lobby, sign in, show identification, give up their keys, cell phones and any metal items, and walk through two metal detectors situated about 20 feet from the lobby doors.
Should the metal detector sound, a visitor is checked with a metal-detecting wand, said Warden Jeffrey Merrill. If, for example, a person is wearing steel-toed shoes, the shoes are removed and checked for contraband before being returned to the wearer.
Visitors also must be on a pre-approved visitors list, which involves a background check, he said.
Before entering the visiting room, guests must pass through a sallyport, which includes double-door barriers that control the flow of people, Merrill said. One door opens, then locks. Then a second door opens and locks.
“If you get through one door, you can’t get through the other” until the prison’s central control unlocks it.
Inside the visitors’ room, a full-time guard watches over the goings-on. A second “rover” guard monitors and shakes down prisoners before and after they enter the room. A sergeant also roams the area. A ceiling camera turns 360 degrees and is monitored by central control.
Anticipating Tuesday’s arrest, Magnusson placed the prison’s inmate population of nearly 1,000 under full lock-down. He said the facility was back to “normal” operations Wednesday and that prisoners would be allowed phone calls. But, he said, inmate visits would be suspended for the remainder of the week as the investigation continues.
“We know there is a high potential that other inmates could have been involved, and there may still be another connection on the outside,” he said. “We hope to [resume] visits next Monday, but we’re not going to do it until we’re assured we’ve gotten everybody who’s involved in this.”
Gary Watland, 44, began serving his 25-year sentence in April 2005 for shooting and killing Wayne Crowley, 32, after a night of drinking in Somerset County on Oct. 25, 2004.
The men had been target shooting and drinking together the previous afternoon, then drinking into the night. When Susan Watland demanded Crowley leave about 1 a.m., a fight broke out. She ended up pulling an intoxicated Crowley from a kitchen chair and throwing him down a set of stairs to the outside.
When Crowley attempted to get back inside the home to retrieve his coat, Gary Watland came outdoors with a .38-caliber revolver, fired a warning shot into the ground, then aimed the gun at Crowley and shot him in the head. His lawyers argued that the shooting was in self-defense because Crowley lunged at Susan Watland. Gary Watland wound up pleading guilty to the murder charge against the advice of counsel.
In December 2004, while her husband was being held at Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan, awaiting trial on the murder charge, Susan Watland smuggled tobacco into the jail for her husband. She was sentenced to 14 days in jail for trafficking in tobacco.
Although the commissioner has worked in the state’s prison system through some 30 years of lockdowns, fires, riots and even a case of a weapon being smuggled into the prison, he said Tuesday’s escape attempt was “right up there” with the most brazen incidents he has seen.
“We’re getting more and more people who are doing the rest of their lives in prison and they have absolutely nothing to lose,” Magnusson said. “They have developed a callous attitude about weapons and the taking of life. There has been a change.”