SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-two years ago, on Saturday, March 5, 1994, a human fortress named Clifford Lynn Draper took 10 people hostage at the Salt Lake City Library, all of whom he said he would kill if his demands weren’t met, among them a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton, back pay from his time in the military, a massive amount of gold bullion and a getaway jet to a foreign country.
Draper had sewn razor blades into his pants in case someone tried to grab him, he tied his handgun to his wrist with a suicide strap, and in his hand he held a deadman’s grip attached to a bomb the size of a microwave oven. If for any reason he released his grip, he wasn’t going out of this world alone.
For over five hours he refused all overtures from police to negotiate. Finally out of patience, he told the hostages, sitting in a semicircle around the bomb in a barricaded conference room on the library’s second floor, they would now draw lengths of cord to see who would be the first to die.
The worst mass murder in Salt Lake City history seemed inevitable — until a superhero flew in out of nowhere, disarmed the bomb with laser vision, killed the madman with one blow to the Adam’s apple, and sent all the hostages home in time for dinner.
That’s not what happened, of course. But it’s not much harder to believe than what did happen — and not nearly as good a story.
* * *
Sheriff’s deputy Lloyd Prescott, the reason those 10 hostages lived and Clifford Lynn Draper didn’t, would be the first to tell you he’s no superhero. Sitting at a booth at CJ’s, his favorite Salt Lake Valley restaurant (bacon and eggs, hash browns and pancakes, served anytime, $4.99), he displays an ability to deflect and downplay praise and adulation with the best of them. Self-deprecation is obviously a well-honed skill.
“I still work out,” he says, before tapping his ample stomach, “although it looks like I do most of it with a spoon.”
He’s here because the media wants to talk about that Saturday in March. Again. There was a time, immediately after the incident, when he got used to all the attention. He was on “The Today Show” right after it happened, reporters national and local called him day and night, the TV program “America’s Most Wanted” came to Salt Lake and filmed a re-enactment. People constantly stopped him on the street — hey, aren’t you? Outright strangers sent him checks in the mail. Women mailed him their pictures. He went to Texas to receive the award as Policeman of the Year for the entire country. He got a Christmas card from the White House, signed by both Bill and Hillary.
But 22 years later, he’s gotten un-used to it, which is fine by Lloyd. Fame and glory were never his objective or his motivation. He’s been teaching law enforcement classes at the community college for the past 15 years, ever since he formally retired from the sheriff’s office at age 52, and half his students have no idea who he was, what he did and when he did it. “Sometimes I’ll show them the 'America’s Most Wanted' segment on the last day of class,” he shrugs. “But most of the students either weren’t born when it happened or they were too young to know anything about it.”
“It’s uncomfortable,” he says, when asked how it’s felt carrying the hero label for the past 22 years. “I read articles about people in law enforcement who have done heroic acts; they all say they did it because it was their duty, it’s what they were sworn to do. I feel that. I don’t feel like I did anything I shouldn’t have done. I did my job.”
His just-the-facts-ma’am, Joe Friday demeanor does crack, however, when he’s asked to take us back to the conference floor on the second floor of the library on March 5, 1994.
“Give me a minute,” he says, wiping his eyes, “I still get emotional. That’s why I don’t like to think about it too much.”
Because the hard cold truth is, 22 years ago he’d have bet the farm he was going to die.
* * *
There was nothing about the scene that was hopeful. Prescott — Lt. Prescott back then of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office — talked his way into the conference room at the very last second — a volunteer hostage — by holding a letter in his hand that Carl Robinson, who was helping with a Tibetan sand-painting exhibition in the library lobby, had been told to mail to Wm. James Mortimer, editor of the Deseret News.
Draper had handed the letter, which listed his demands, to Robinson before Draper began herding nine hostages into the conference room. At that point, Prescott was on his way to the scene from the sheriff’s office, located across the courtyard from the library. Normally, he wouldn’t have been there on a Saturday, but on this particular morning he’d scheduled a training class to teach. He was dressed in off-duty civilian clothes — a golf shirt, a Members Only jacket and Dockers pants. On his right hip was his service revolver — the one part of his uniform he never left home without.
At 9:45 a.m., 21-year-old David Blume had sprinted from the library to the sheriff’s office and shouted, “Is anyone here?”
“I’m here,” answered Prescott from the back room. In seconds, he and Blume were double-timing it to the library.
When Robinson showed Prescott the letter, he saw it as his “distract” into the drama. He took it from Robinson and waved it at Draper from the doorway of the conference room where he was in the process of barricading his hostages. “What do you want me to do with this?”
Draper gave him the same instruction he’d given Robinson.
Then Prescott said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but you’re scaring the hell out of me with that gun. What do you want me to do?”
Draper told him to come in and sit down.
Prescott assessed the scene as he entered the room. It was not good. Draper had multiple weapons, one of which, the bomb, would go off even if he were dead.
“One of the rules of law enforcement is don’t create a greater hazard than the hazard you’re trying to overcome,” Prescott says. “I couldn’t shoot without endangering innocent people.”
So he chose a chair where he could get off a shot if he had to, and sat down.
The textbook scenario for a situation like this — involving an irrational likely paranoid schizophrenic — is for a trained police negotiator to talk the perp down, get him off the ledge, as it were.
“I knew I had to sit there and let the negotiator bond with him, do the work, and talk him out,” remembers Prescott. “Nobody gets hurt, everybody walks out, it’s a happy ending. I’ll be the insurance policy.”
For the next five-plus hours, Lloyd Prescott posed as a garden-variety hostage. When Draper asked him his profession, he answered “bookkeeper.”
“I didn’t want him to think I did anything physical for a living.”
When Draper commanded the hostages to take off their coats, Prescott froze. His jacket was hiding his gun.
“I’m really cold, can I leave it on?” he asked.
An outraged Draper said under no circumstances could he keep his coat on.
As Prescott took his jacket off he pulled his shirt out of his pants, effectively keeping his gun hidden.
While Draper killed time by calling a local radio station to request rock songs, the lieutenant had a chance to size up his fellow hostages. They were holding themselves together, each in his own way. One of them, Earl Dillon had his eyes closed (“I thought he was asleep, then I realized he was praying”), a woman from Orem named Delacruz was reading a book (“Draper said she could, so she did. She just divorced herself from the reality of the situation”), Nathan Black, a BYU student, cracked jokes (“His way of trying to lighten the mood”), Gwen Page did everything Draper asked of her (“He called her ‘The Library Lady’ because she worked there; just a nice person”).
But one of the hostages, Sue Allison, a diabetic who didn’t have her insulin, was in obvious distress. Fellow hostage Virginia Savage was doing her best to comfort Allison as she descended into diabetic shock.
Eyeing the bomb, Prescott could see it was rigged with black powder. From his hunting days he knew that black powder, while deadly, is a low-level explosive. He figured it wouldn’t be strong enough to penetrate through the table it was sitting on. If that were true, anyone below the table when it went off would be safe.
It was at this point he threw “a little pity party for myself. I recognized that if I give the others time to get below the table he’s going to have time to turn on me.”
But if Plan A had its downside, Prescott knew there was no realistic Plan B — and Draper was getting impatient. After five hours, with Sue Allison’s condition deteriorating and no gold bullion in sight, Draper ordered The Library Lady to cut a cord into lengths. Whoever drew the shortest length would be the one he’d shoot first. Then the authorities would know he was serious.
“I knew I couldn’t let him kill somebody,” says Prescott.
When Gwen Page asked where the knife was so she could cut the cord, Draper looked down at his bag on the floor.
That glance was all Prescott needed.
“It was my window of opportunity. I stood up and as loud as I could yelled, ‘Sheriff’s office, hit the floor!’ ”
It was 22 years ago, but to Lt. Prescott what happened next will never be in anything but present tense.
“I’m watching out of the corner of my eye people literally bail off the table and the chairs onto the floor. He (Draper) turns on me and I’m thinking, OK, I’ve got to take him out before I go down. He has his hand on his gun and his finger on the trigger. I don’t know why he doesn’t shoot. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t get off a single round.”
Prescott got off five shots; every one of them hit Draper.
Prescott dove to the floor, wondering why the bomb hadn’t gone off already.
But all he heard was silence until the SWAT team busted through the door with a battering ram.
It turned out Draper hadn’t wired the deadman’s grip properly. When his hand let go as he died, no connection was made. Later, the bomb squad, not daring to move the device, set it off where it stood. Shrapnel shot upward and sideways, but Prescott was right, it did not penetrate the table. Anyone on the ground would have been spared.
“So it was all good,” says Prescott as he finally lets himself relax in his booth at CJ’s, relieved again to be at the end of his story. “As good as it could be I guess.”
He says he’s carried the residue of that Saturday in March ever since, the good and the bad — “We’re taught to save lives, not take them; you have to live with that the rest of your life. and nobody teaches you how to do that.”
He still talks to some of the hostages from time to time, “although not as much as before. The world moves on.”
He plans to retire from teaching at the college in June. After that? “I’m just going to go on with life. I like to do things to help people.”
Law enforcement will always be the love of his life, and yes, he greatly laments the declining image of police officers. Times have changed since he got into police work, “and not for the better. We’re so soon to jump on the law enforcement officer and not take time to let the facts come out. I hope that one day society will realize that the vast majority of policemen are good and moral people who have a tough job and perform their duties to the best of their abilities.”
As a case in point, 22 years ago, on Saturday, March 5, 1994, a human fortress named Clifford Lynn Draper took 10 people hostage at the Salt Lake City Library. ... One of them, fortunately, was a cop.