Forest ranger who helped nab fugitives hailed as hero
Associated Press Writers
ST. JOHNS, Ariz. (AP) – A forest ranger who alertly spotted a pair of fugitives at a remote Arizona campsite was hailed Friday as “a true hero” after his tip allowed a heavily armed law enforcement contingent to capture the couple.
The efforts by the ranger came at great risk. Fugitive John McCluskey had a gun in his possession said he wished he would have shot the forest ranger and arresting officers when he had the chance, authorities said.
“He is a true hero,” Apache County Sheriff Joseph Dedman said of the ranger. “He made contact. He was out there doing his job when he saw these two fugitives.”
McCluskey and Casslyn Welch were captured after a three-week manhunt that made them two of the most wanted fugitives in America and drew hundreds of false sightings.
It’s not clear where the fugitives traveled while on the run in a beat-up Nissan. They are suspected in several crimes, including the killing of a couple in New Mexico.
McCluskey and Welch are scheduled to appear in court later Friday for an initial appearance.
McCluskey fled July 30 with two other inmates from a private prison in northwest Arizona and evaded authorities in at least six states before being caught Thursday evening just 300 miles east of the prison.
Authorities arrested McCluskey, 45, and Welch, 44, at a campsite in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona. Welch is McCluskey’s fiance and cousin.
Apache County sheriff’s Cmdr. Webb Hogle said McCluskey and Welch were standing next to a car that belonged to a neighboring camper as the SWAT team swarmed the campground just before dark. He yelled at McCluskey to “get down.” When the inmate didn’t comply, Hogle said he took him down with force.
Welch reached for a weapon but dropped it when she realized she was outgunned by the team led by Hogle. SWAT members reminded one another not to handle Welch’s weapon too much in case it was used in the New Mexico killings, Hogle said.
McCluskey responded, “No, the murder weapon is over in the tent,” Hogle said. McCluskey also told authorities he would have used the gun in the tent to shoot them if he had been able to reach it.
“He has no remorse,” Hogle said.
Hogle still was jittery the morning after the capture he called the most significant of his career. He has served on the SWAT team for six years and was promoted to commander a week ago.
“We train for that, that’s what we expect,” he said. “You try to remain professional and you always fall back on your training.”
A helicopter, ambulance, flares, bloodhounds and a secondary team that were brought in to respond to any reports of officers down weren’t needed.
It was a peaceful close to a manhunt that authorities had said was likely to end in a bloody shootout between officers and desperate outlaws who fancied themselves as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.
“The nightmare that began July 30 is finally over,” David Gonzales, U.S. marshal for Arizona, said Thursday evening.
The fugitives’ ruse began to crumble about 4 p.m. Thursday when the U.S. Forest Service ranger investigated what appeared to be an unattended campfire, Gonzales said. He found the silver Nissan Sentra backed suspiciously into the trees as if someone were trying to hide it.
The ranger had a brief conversation with McCluskey, who appeared nervous and fidgety. A SWAT team and surveillance unit surrounded the campsite and swarmed on the fugitives about three hours later.
A photo released by authorities showed McCluskey wearing dirty blue jeans and no shirt with an “Arizona” tattoo across his chest.
“I hope the citizens of Arizona and the nation can rest easier this evening,” state Corrections Department Director Charles Ryan said Thursday evening.
Authorities were looking through the campsite Friday for any evidence that could link the fugitives to other crimes during their time on the lam.
Gonzales said investigators looked into 700 tips from nearly every state in a manhunt that had officers swarming into small towns from Montana to Arkansas. Authorities said the trail had gone cold since McCluskey and Welch were last seen Aug. 6 in Billings, Mont.
It’s unclear how long they were in Arizona, but Gonzales said authorities suspected they might return to the state they know best. Dedman said the two were in the small town of Eagar near the campsite at some point to have a tire fixed.
Corrections officials have said that Welch helped McCluskey and fellow inmates Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick escape from the private prison near Kingman by cutting through a security fence.
Renwick was recaptured in Rifle, Colo., on Aug. 1, and Province was found in Meeteetse, Wyo., on Aug. 9.
Renwick and Province were serving time for murder. McCluskey was serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.
Province, McCluskey and Welch have been linked to the slayings of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla., whose burned bodies were found in a travel trailer Aug. 4 on a remote ranch near Santa Rosa, N.M. They had been traveling to Colorado on an annual camping trip.
Officials said the stolen car found Thursday at the Arizona campsite had New Mexico license plates stolen around the time the Haases were killed.
“That’s the best news we’ve had in 10 days. Everybody just broke down and cried for a little bit,” Sheila Walker, one of the Haases’ best friends, told The Associated Press late Thursday. “That was the one thing we wanted to hear.”
The arrests came hours after officials discussed a report that outlined a series of embarrassing security breakdowns that allowed the escape.
The prison has a badly defective alarm system, a perimeter post was unstaffed, an outside dormitory door had been propped open with a rock and the alarms went off so often that prison personnel often just ignored them, the report said. Also, operational practices often led to a gap of 15 minutes or longer during shift changes along the perimeter fence, Ryan said.
Prison staff told a review team that the dormitory door was left open because of the heavy amount of foot traffic. That open door allowed the three inmates to reach a 10-foot chain-linked fence that hadn’t been topped with razor wire. They scaled that fence and hid out for a time behind a building in an area that isn’t visible to staff from the yard.
Using wire cutters, which Welch tossed into the prison yard shortly before the 9 p.m. shift change, the inmates cut a 30-by-22-inch hole and held the fence back with a dog leash.
Associated Press writers Walter Berry and Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Tim Korte and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.
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