Archbishop freed in hostage ordeal

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Captor surrenders after 9-hour standoff at San Antonio diocese offices

SAN ANTONIO – A Central American man apparently concerned about being deported held Catholic Archbishop Patrick Flores hostage for nine hours Wednesday until police negotiators secured his safe release.

Police identified the suspect as Nelson Antonio Escolero, 40, a native of El Salvador. They said the man surrendered after negotiators provided him with faxed documents related to his immigration status.

"We really didn't make any agreements," San Antonio Police Chief Al Philippus said after the incident ended about 7 p.m. Wednesday. "Once he got those documents, he agreed to give up."

Chief Philippus said Archbishop Flores, 70, was not injured during the ordeal but was taken to Christus Santa Rosa Hospital for observation overnight. Officials said he was in good condition and resting comfortably.

"He has some minor back problems, and his back was a little stiff," Chief Philippus said.

Mr. Escolero, who has lived in San Antonio with his wife and three children for 25 years, sought out the bishop because he is "a champion of human-rights issues," Chief Philippus said. "He really had nothing against the archbishop.".

He also praised the archbishop for his composure during the incident. "He never lost his cool. He was very calm," he said.

The chief said the man railed on about a number of personal and national issues and at one time had indicated he wanted to flee to Cuba.

"He was very distraught," the chief said. "He was probably concerned about 20 different issues."

The chief said police agreed to one of his demands: the chance to see documents relating to his immigration status.

In addition to concerns about being unemployed and worries about being unable to care for his family, Mr. Escolero was concerned that two charges of driving with a suspended license might lead to his deportation, the chief said.

Mr. Escolero, also known as Carlos Cruz, had in his possession "a hand grenade-like" object that police later determined was a "hoax" device.

The suspect was taken to police headquarters, where he was charged with two counts of aggravated kidnapping.

"If you abduct someone, and you restrain them – under the use, under the threat of deadly force – then that makes it an aggravated kidnapping, and that's what we're going to charge him with," said Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed.

Chief Phillipus said he went to the hospital to see the archbishop, who he said was in good spirits.

"Right away he wanted to talk about everything that happened today ... he's very tired, obviously," the chief said. "He said he honestly wanted to help this man. That's just the way the archbishop is."

The chief said the suspect made several threats during the standoff.

"He was willing to set an example – make a statement to the world," Chief Philippus said.

During negotiations Mr. Escolero raised his voice and got "very emotional several times."

He speculated that the suspect finally surrendered because police had gained his confidence.

"I think he was tired. He felt confident enough with us that nothing was going to happen to him," the chief said.

Chief Philippus said that Mr. Escolero has a half-dozen convictions, including two for possession of marijuana and one for burglarizing a vehicle. He was twice convicted of driving with a suspended license.

The chief said he was thankful that the incident ended peacefully. "God really came down and smiled upon us and put his arms around us," he said.

The hostage incident stunned many people in San Antonio. Archbishop Flores has been a leading spiritual leader for more than 20 years. He is the nation's first Mexican-American named bishop of the Catholic Church and has become a respected figure in the clerical community.

"Archbishop Flores is one of the prominent leaders in this city who will speak for peace," said Monsignor Terence Nolan, another Catholic leader in San Antonio.

Over the years, the archbishop has spoken out against abortion and the death penalty. Recently, he had encouraged cooperation with the U.S. census.

"I don't know of any concerted effort to do damage to him," Monsignor Nolan said.

Dozens of residents near the chancery gathered during the day in their tree-shaded yards to watch police and media swarm around the area. About a dozen residents conducted a nonstop prayer vigil. Some held pictures of Jesus and rosary beads.

The archdiocese offices are located in a largely residential neighborhood where many people feel they have gotten to know Archbishop Flores since his 1979 installation as head of the Catholic Church in San Antonio. Many call him the "Mariachi Bishop" because of his love of Mexican-American music and dancing. They also respect his humble heritage as the son of a South Texas migrant worker.

Archbishop Flores found himself in a similar situation in Ecuador when he was a bishop in 1976. A group of military officers put him and a group of clerics under house arrest for several days. The group was released unharmed.

Father David Garcia, pastor of San Fernando Cathedral, Archbishop Flores' home church said some Catholic leaders recently voiced concerns about security at the chancery. They said the archbishop's open-door policy made him accessible to anyone. The building's design, with multiple entrances, also reflects that openness, they said.

"It [the building] is opening its arms to everyone ­ saying, 'You're welcome,'" Father Garcia said.

Wednesday's hostage incident began about 10:15 a.m. as Archbishop Flores entered his offices. Witnesses said Mr. Escolero and a younger man approached the archbishop in the parking lot. They said Mr. Escolero insisted that he needed help with a passport problem.

He and the archbishop, speaking in Spanish, entered the building as the younger man ran away. They went to Archbishop Flores' office and attracted the attention of Myrtle Sanchez, the archbishop's longtime secretary, police said.

She was held against her will there for more than two hours.

Ms. Sanchez said the suspect held an object in his hand and used it in a threatening manner. Police said Ms. Sanchez was released shortly after noon Wednesday. She was not hurt.

Father Fred Sackett, who was in the chancery when the incident began, said he had been told that the suspect had come to the Catholic offices with one of his sons. He said witnesses in the office building told him that the son "ran away" and fled in a car after his father took Archbishop Flores hostage.

Father Sackett also said he had been told that some church employees had seen the archbishop on his office floor after he became a hostage. Earlier reports, unconfirmed by police, said the archbishop had been shoved to the floor during the incident.

Monsignor Lawrence Stuebben, vicar general for the archdiocese of San Antonio, said that during the long hours holed up in the archbishop's third-floor office, the suspect made a series of telephone calls to the FBI and officials in Washington to complain of his treatment in the United States.

Staff writer Brenda Rodriguez in San Antonio and Scott Parks in Dallas contributed to this report.