Springfielder helped to free prison hostages

Stan Erter went through a hole blown in the prison roof to do his duty.

Two springs later, Stan Erter would be on the Ohio State University campus trying to quell a disturbance when news broke that four students had been shot at Kent State University.

By that time, protests and disorder were a regular enough feature of the social and political landscape that Erter kept underwear, socks and a toothbrush in his Ohio State Highway Patrol cruiser.

But none of the experiences of that turbulent time was as hair-raising as his first — the one that 45 years ago sent him dropping through a hole blown in the roof of the Ohio State Penitentiary as part of an attempt to free prison guards that inmates had taken hostage and were threatening to burn alive.

Said Erter, in the breezy kitchen of his Springfield home, “The penitentiary was my first real experience with death and violence.”

A bruising fullback on Springfield Catholic Central’s undefeated 1963 team, Erter had gone to Bowling Green State University for a year to play football. But when his scholarship fell through and the mother who had worked day and night to send him through Catholic schools fell ill, “of course, I came back,” he said.

He then did what generations of Springfield boys had done: got on International Harvester and started working the line and punching a clock.

Prompted in part by a childhood memory, he also filled out paperwork for a job at the Highway Patrol.

One Sunday morning when “I was probably 8, 9 or 10,” Erter was out playing during a visit to a friend’s family in Southern Ohio and watched a car making its way up through the hills, disappearing and reappearing as it climbed and rounded bends.

It was a Highway Patrol car that stopped in the yard where he was playing, “and it was the shiniest car I think I ever saw,” he said. “This trooper got out, and he was just immaculate, head to toe: Bright shiny shoes, neatly pressed uniform.”

Even when, as a teen, Erter received traffic citations from like-dressed patrolmen, “that always stuck with me,” he said.

Twenty when he got the call to be a dispatcher cadet, Erter spent six months at the St. Mary’s post under the gruff tutelage of Sgt. Walt Wells, then in June of 1966 joined the second class to train at the Highway Patrol Academy near the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus.

When the patrol gave him choices of where to be assigned, “Of course, I picked everywhere except Clark County,” said Erter, “and they sent me to Clark County.”

Here, he worked with Sgt. and later Lt. Virlin ‘Gene’ Archer, whom he picked up at the Springfield Post on East National Road on Aug. 21, 1968, the day after rioting prisoners took hostages at the Ohio Penitentiary.

That June, inmates in the aged and overcrowded facility had set fires that destroyed several buildings, causing $750,000 to $1 million in damage.

The morning they headed over, news of the riot in Columbus shared front page space with the announcement that “fourteen Clark County Sheriff’s’s Deputies returned safely to Springfield … in the aftermath of a prison insurrection at the Lebanon Correctional Institute which left 25 persons injured.”

The June riot at the Ohio Pen was followed by what reportedly was the scheduled retirement of long time Warden E.L. Maxwell and his replacement with Warden Marion J. Koloski.

Criticized for not acting quickly to crack down on inmates when the August riot broke out, Koloski told the press: “The reason we spend so much time talking to the prisoners is because human lives are at stake.”

Koloski’s more measured approach would be revisited after the Kent State shootings, but at the time, the union representing two thirds of the guards charged with keeping order at the prison described their working conditions “horrible and untenable” and the warden’s failure to use forceful measures “nearly criminal.”

At 7 a.m. the day Erter and Archer were called to Columbus, Ohio Adjutant Gen. Sylvester T. Del Corso seemed to be losing patience with the warden, telling the press: “I hope we’ll be able to get something settled quickly — whether they release them or whether we have to go in and get them.”

Some accounts indicate Del Corso and State Patrol Col. Robert N. Chiaramonte seized control from an indecisive Koloski, himself increasingly frustrated with inmates’ continually changing demands.

In making their plans for an assault to free the hostages, authorities had a major concern: If they charged the cells where the hostages were held, the inmates could just move them floor by floor up the tiers of cells.

“That’s where Archer and I came in,” Erter said, although he didn’t know that as he followed Archer out of the prison yard and toward the powers that be.

“We walked up this enormous staircase old wood winding staircase — never seen anything like it,” Erter said.

And there they crouched until 2:50 p.m. — five minutes after the 15-minute deadline authorities had set for the inmates’ surrender — when he heard the call “Fire in the hole!”

Two explosions “shook the earth and the building and everything,” Erter said. “My heart was beating like a trip hammer.”

As patrolmen, National Guardsmen and police poured in the ground floor, Erter and Archer vaulted up an interior staircase to the roof and scrambled for the hole blown in it.

A hundred feet up, “I slipped,” Erter said. “The only shoes we had were leather-sole shoes, and here we were on a slate roof.”

The angle iron he grabbed was still hot from the explosion, but he and Archer were able to lower themselves down by rope.

“We dropped maybe 15, 20 feet, and we fired off some rounds from our riot guns down the cell block to keep any of the inmates from bringing those guards up,” Erter said.

At the same time, “all the guys going in from downstairs were firing rounds through the cell blocks.

An Associated Press report described “staccato bursts of automatic rifle fire and the roar of shotguns.”

“I don’t know if you want to say I felt them or heard them,” Erter said.

But he does recall wondering whether he might be killed.

“‘Is this where it’s going to happen?’ I really felt that,” he said. “And I remember stepping in some blood.”

It was all over quickly.

Five prisoners died during the disturbances. Five more prisoners and seven officers were injured. None of the hostages was killed, and all the involved prisoners were stripped and inspected for weapons in the prison yard before being sent to their cells.

Neither Erter, Archer nor any of the others involved in the maneuver officially were cited for valor, something Chiaramonte later told Erter was based on the fear that disclosing their names might lead inmates to come after them.

But in a history of the Patrol published in 1993, their former boss singles them out for praise.

“One thing that stands out is the Pen Riot in ‘68, when we blew a hole in the pen roof and two men went down that hole,” Chiaramonte says. “Lt. Verlin ‘Gene’ Archer and Ptl. Stanley Erter were the ones. That took more nerve than anything I can think of.”

Like those who charged through the hole blown in the wall, the two went “way beyond the call of duty,” he added, “and they were happy and willing to do it.”

“If I had had a lot of time to think about it, I don’t know if I would have done it or not,” Erter said. But back then, “being the young guy that I was, I said OK.”

Erter returned to the abandoned penitentiary years later to investigate how much copper wire thieves had stolen from it.

“It was a mess,” he said. “They brought machine wire strippers … and they stripped the coating off the wire right from the building.”

Like the turbulent late 1960s, the Ohio Penitentiary is now gone, leveled to make room for development in Columbus’ vibrant Arena District.

But with the help of files and photos from the time, Erter always will remember the dramatic moments in which he became a part of its history.

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