After three weeks on the run, fugitives arrested without fight

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 21, 2010

ST. JOHNS, Ariz. (AP) — Over the past three weeks, an escaped Arizona prisoner and his girlfriend bedeviled the hundreds of lawmen hunting them across the desolate highways and thick forests of the West.

There would be sightings of John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch. One in Montana. Another as far away as Arkansas. And then sometimes nothing.

Until Thursday, when an alert forest ranger’s tip led police right to them. The self-styled ‘‘Bonnie and Clyde’’ offered little resistance. A few threats. No shootout. They didn’t even try to run.

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As the nation kept a look out for them and law enforcers put up alerts at campgrounds and truck stops, the couple somehow slipped back into Arizona, their beat-up Nissan hidden at a campground across the state from the prison where McCluskey escaped, police say, with help from Welch — his cousin and fiancee.

When a SWAT team descended on the campsite at dusk, Welch reached for a weapon but dropped it when she realized she was outgunned, police said. A shirtless, tattoo-covered McCluskey told officers that he regretted not shooting them with the gun he had in a nearby tent.

‘‘He has no remorse,’’ Apache County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Webb Hogle said.

The capture brought an end to a manhunt that began July 30 when McCluskey and two murderers broke out of a medium-security prison in Kingman, 185 miles northwest of Phoenix. Authorities say Welch threw a set of wire cutters onto prison grounds, allowing them to cut open a fence.

One inmate was caught after a shootout in Colorado. The other was nabbed in a small Wyoming town after he was spotted at a church.

The escape cast a critical spotlight on Arizona’s prison system. A report on Thursday found a series of breakdowns that allowed the inmates to slip away into the desert, including alarms that went off so often that prison personnel often just ignored them.

Police on Friday were still trying to piece together details about the couple’s time on the lam.

McCluskey, 45, and Welch, 44, are suspected in several crimes, including the killing of a couple in New Mexico whose torched bodies were found in Santa Rosa. Officials said the Nissan had New Mexico license plates that were stolen around the time they were killed.

During the arrest, he suggested that the gun used in the killings was in his tent, police said.

Police were looking through the campsite for any evidence that could link them to other crimes.

Investigators looked into 700 tips from nearly every state in a manhunt that had officers swarming into small towns from Montana to Arkansas, said David Gonzales, U.S. marshal for Arizona.

The last credible sightings came on Aug. 6 in Billings, Mont. More tips led authorities north to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border.

‘‘We threw a lot of resources at that border and that area in general, to where I don’t think anybody could have stayed there long without being detected,’’ said Rod Ostermiller, the acting U.S. marshal in Montana.

It’s unclear how long they were in Arizona. At some point they were in tiny Eagar, just west of the New Mexico border, to have a tire fixed, Apache County Sheriff Joseph Dedman said.

Only a handful of houses can be spotted from the winding road that leads up to the campsite. Motorists pass towering trees, vast meadows and bodies of water before reaching it, about 20 miles and an hour’s drive from an earlier turnoff.

‘‘They were starting to feel pretty comfortable, like they had a pretty good chance of not being captured,’’ Hogle said.

Around 4 p.m. Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service ranger investigated what appeared to be an unattended campfire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, 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.

Arriving officers left nothing to chance — fully expecting a guns-blazing shootout by two desperate fugitives. A helicopter, ambulance, bloodhounds and a secondary team were brought in to respond to any reports of officers down at the campsite.

Hogle said McCluskey and Welch were standing next to a car that belonged to a neighboring camper as the SWAT team swarmed in. He yelled at McCluskey to ‘‘get down.’’ When the fugitive didn’t comply, Hogle said, he took him down with force.

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 also told them that he should’ve blown away the ranger when he had the chance, police said.

McCluskey was serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm, and previously did time in Pennsylvania related to a string of armed robberies in the 1990s.

The other inmates who escaped, Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick, were serving time for murder.

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.

‘‘That’s the best news we’ve had in 10 days,’’ Sheila Walker, one of the Haases’ best friends, said of the capture. ‘‘Everybody just broke down and cried for a little bit.’’

McCluskey and Welch were being held in jail on $1 million bail each. They were scheduled for preliminary hearings in Kingman later this month.

When a judge asked McCluskey his address Friday, he said, ‘‘I don’t have one.’’ She then marked down the state Department of Corrections as his residence.

To that, McCluskey said, ‘‘Yeah, I guess that would be it.’’