Hostage Taking and Explosives in Salt Lake

Linda Sillitoe
History of Salt Lake County

Despite the fears around gang violence and a crowded judicial system, the frequency of bizarre and dramatic crimes diminished markedly after the mid-1980s as mysteriously as civil unrest had diminished in the nation after the mid-1970s. Two crimes, however, encapsulated the great fears of the 1990s, confronting cities and nations worldwide. Both involved hostage-taking, terrorism, and explosives. The first happened in homeloving Sandy, the second in Salt Lake City at an event intended, ironically enough, to promote the cause of peace.

The armed takeover of the Women’s Center at the Alta View Hospital struck at a bedrock value particularly evident in the south valley–the emphasis on large families. In fact, the madness lying beneath a terrifying eighteen-hour siege stemmed from a couple’s disagreement over a Sandy woman’s fertility.

Following the birth of their eighth child, Richard and Karen Worthington had agreed she should have a tubal ligation. Richard gave only grudging permission, however, and later the couple objected so strongly that the hospital canceled their bill for both the delivery and the procedure in return for the Worthington’s promise not to pursue litigation.

Both depression and tirades increased in Richard Worthington’s everyday life; he was known in his Sandy neighborhood as the hardworking but short-tempered father of [8 children] (two had died shortly after birth). By fall 1991, Karen Worthington removed all his guns from the home, but acquiesced to his demands on the afternoon of 20 September and retrieved them. That night Richard Worthington, heavily armed, drove to the Alta View Hospital where he damaged the automobile of Dr. Glade Curtis, who had performed the surgery. Leaving a bomb in a flowerbed, he then broke into the Women’s Center in search of the doctor.

He cornered two nurses, Karla Roth and Susan Woolley, even as the alerted doctor ducked into an office and called police. Worthington then had the nurses round up hostages, including newborns in plastic cribs. Meanwhile two post-partum mothers grabbed their infants and hid.

When Worthington forced the nurses into the parking lot toward his vehicle, the trio encountered Sandy police. Karla Roth seized the barrel of his shotgun, tried to wrest it from him, then ran. He raised a pistol and shot her in the back. He forced Woolley back into the hospital as medical personnel failed to save Roth’s life. She left behind a teenage son, her husband, and their baby (see update from a reader below).

Worthington’s hostages were forced to sack Curtis’s office and to build a barricade as the long night became morning. At one point, he fired a pistol into a telephone that rested beside Christan Downey, in labor with her first child, who would be born a hostage. Another hostage, Adam Cisneros, was ordered to retrieve the homemade bomb from the flowerbed, and its presence kept SWAT teams from West Valley City and Salt Lake City at bay.

As hunger and exhaustion wore down both captor and captives, Salt Lake City officers Sergeant Don Bell and Detective Jill Candland overcame telephone line difficulties to talk Worthington into surrendering, aided by Woolley inside the hospital. For much of the eighteen-hour siege, the media surrounded the hospital, allowing valley residents a look at the defeated terrorist. He perched beside his wife on the back bumper of a fire truck, wearing a baseball cap that read: “It’s a boy–Alta View Hospital.” Worthington later committed suicide in prison.

While the Alta View incident prompted a nationally-aired television drama, the second incident brought national and presidential awards for courageous and canny police work. Lieutenant Lloyd Prescott of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office became a hostage himself within the main branch of the Salt Lake Public Library about 9:30 a.m. on 7 March 1994.


Tibetan monks were performing a sand-painting ceremony in the cause of world peace when Clifford Draper leaped onto a table, announced he had a gun and a bomb, and began taking hostages. As the monks and most audience members escaped, word of the gunman spread across the plaza, and Prescott, a self-described “desk jockey,” rushed to the library’s second floor. He traded places with the last hostage entering an enclosed room, his service pistol hidden beneath his clothing.

Draper, the Salt Lake Valley learned later, represented a classic example of a citizen who should not possess a gun. He had purchased it during a local rush on gun stores as the weapon-restricting Brady Bill was debated in Congress. Draper’s bizarre behavior had been observed locally when he “stomped out a war dance around his penny-pot while working as a Salvation Army bell ringer.” His lurking presence outside a supermarket in the Avenues had frightened customers and employees alike. Now he demanded cash, gold and platinum bullion, back pay he believed he had earned in military service, and a pardon from President Clinton.

Morning faded into a tense afternoon. Outside the library, SWAT teams gathered, friends and families of the hostages waited on the City and County Building grounds, and reporters raced between police sources and television cameras. At 2:30 p.m., when Draper prepared to have the hostages draw straws to determine their order of death, Prescott acted.

As had been the concern in the Worthington incident, he worried that eliminating Draper would result in a “dead man’s switch” detonating the bomb; but he concluded that if the hostages lay on the floor, their risks would be reduced. He slowly withdrew his pistol, and when Draper became distracted, yelled, “Sheriff’s office!” and “Hit the floor!”

The hostages dropped and the gunman wheeled toward him. Prescott fired five fatal shots, even as fellow officers burst through glass partitions. Minutes later the hostages filed from the building to the relief of onlookers and viewers who were aware that shots had been fired and medical assistance requested–not only for Draper but for officers who also suffered cuts while breaking into the room.

This article is from the Utah Centennial County History Series, A History of Salt Lake County, by Linda Sillitoe, which was published in 1996. We do not control the content of this article.

Update from a reader (September 20, 2011):
“Karla Roth left behind her husband, a teenage son, teenage daughter, young son and 11 month old daughter.”