Prison Guard Foiled Al Qaeda Jailbreak

ByBrian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz

April 28, 2004 -- Louis Pepe, a 42-year-old former prison guard, has paid quite a price for successfully preventing a particularly vicious al Qaeda prison escape.

On Nov. 1, 2000, al Qaeda leader Mamdouh Salim attempted to escape from an area inside New York City's Metropolitan Correctional Center known as 10-South, a special high-security section of the federal prison.

"10-South is a special wing reserved for the terrorists," said ABCNEWS consultant and former FBI agent Jack Cloonan.

Months before the escape attempt, prison officials were warned by the FBI that a jailbreak was being planned in 10-South.

"We had learned there might be the possibility of a plan for them to break out," Cloonan said. "We did tell the Bureau of Prisons."

The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons, issued an official "no comment" when asked by ABCNEWS about the claim.

The warning, however, did not stop Salim from launching an ingenious, bloody escape attempt from 10-South.

At the time, he was already awaiting trial for the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 231 people, including 12 Americans.

Salim had marked an escape route from the prison to the United Nations and written a hostage demand note, as part of a wider plot to negotiate the release of other prisoners.

To complete his escape, Salim had to get the cell block keys away from Pepe, his intended victim.

Salim would later testify in court that he launched his attack after another guard announced he was going to lunch, leaving Pepe alone.

"[Pepe] was regarded as one of the only guards that actually treated these people, in their view, with respect, and so immediately he emerges as a soft target. That's the reason they went after Officer Pepe," Cloonan said.

"I was very nice," Pepe said. "I always would [do] whatever they want. I used to help them give them, of course you would never give money, but if you want help, you need something, whatever you need."

Bloody Attack

Salim, uncuffed, asked Pepe to escort him back to his cell to retrieve files. As the two entered the cell, Salim attacked Pepe by first blinding him with hot sauce he purchased from the prison commissary and stored in plastic bear-shaped honey bottles.

Next, using a sharpened plastic comb he hid in his cell, Salim stabbed Pepe in the left eye, as Salim's own lawyer, Charles Adler, watched in horror from a nearby visiting room.

"He was covered with blood as if someone had poured a gallon of red paint over his head," said Adler.

"I said, 'God, please get me.' I thought I was dead," said Pepe.

Even though the comb went deep into Pepe's brain, the prison guard defiantly never let go of the keys.

"He was kicking," Salim said in his testimony. "I became crazy. I put the knife and put it in his eye."

Pepe managed to survive the attack. Now, despite the brain damage, subsequent paralysis, and slurred speech, he can remember the struggle.

"Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam," said Pepe in an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS, mimicking the sound of the attack. "That's why I look a little crazy."

Still facing a tough recovery and having difficulty getting the government to pay for all the treatment his family says he needs, Pepe said he is proud of how he thwarted the escape.

‘I Would Do It Again’

"I had to [keep the cell block keys]. And like I said, if I had to do it again, I would do it again," said Pepe. "That's the way, and they know that's what you're supposed to do."

Next Monday, Pepe will return to the federal complex in New York City for the first time since the attack. He is scheduled to testify in court as his attacker, Salim, is sentenced by a federal judge. Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence.

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