PHOENIX – An unattended campfire and a suspicious forest ranger led to the arrest of two of the most wanted fugitives in the U.S., ending a three-week nationwide manhunt that drew hundreds of false sightings, authorities said.
John 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 his alleged accomplice Casslyn Welch, 44, at a campsite in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona.
Welch, who is McCluskey’s fiancee and cousin, reached for a weapon but dropped it when she realized she was outgunned by a swarming SWAT team, said David Gonzales, U.S. marshal for Arizona.
Officers apprehended McCluskey without incident after finding him lying in a sleeping bag outside a tent. He told authorities he had a gun in his tent and would have shot them if he had been able to reach for it.
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,” Gonzales said.
The fugitives’ ruse began to crumble about 4 p.m. Thursday when a U.S. Forest Service ranger investigated what appeared to be an unattended campfire, Gonzales said. He found a 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, Gonzales said.
McCluskey told officers he wishes he would have shot the forest ranger when he had the opportunity, authorities said.
McCluskey and Welch were being held in the Apache County Jail in St. Johns.
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,” said state Corrections Department Director Charles Ryan.
Authorities will spend Friday combing the campsite looking 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.
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 family was grateful that their prayers had been answered and that no one else was hurt during the hunt for the fugitive and his accomplice.
“That was one of our main fears, that they would get desperate and someone else would get hurt,” Walker said. “We are just thrilled they are back behind bars.”
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.
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