A Clean Sweep
02/05/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
The scruffy gaggle of seven men told folks they were a band of Christians on a sightseeing tour of the West. On Jan. 1 they arrived in their Pace Arrow camper at the Coachlight Motel and RV Park in Woodland Park, Colo., a hamlet at the foot of the Rockies just northwest of Colorado Springs. In the weeks that followed, they became less reclusive, chatting with other residents of the park and frequenting a nearby convenience store for coffee and pastry. On several occasions four of the men evidently dropped into the Tres Hombres Tex-Mex restaurant to shoot pool and sip Shiner Bock, a Texas beer. The fact that at least two of them had badly dyed hair didn't attract much notice. "We get guys in here with purple hair and Mohawks," says owner Darby Howard, "so it wasn't really anything out of the ordinary."
That was about to change. For in reality the seven were the notorious escapees from the maximum-security Connally Unit prison outside Kenedy, Texas, who had eluded a nationwide dragnet for nearly six weeks. Alerted by tipsters the morning of Jan. 22, nearly 100 law-enforcement officers swooped down on Woodland Park, apprehending four of the fugitives, including believed ringleader George Rivas, while a fifth, Larry Harper, committed suicide. Then, early Jan. 24, one of the nation's most intensive recent manhunts came to a peaceful close after authorities allowed Patrick Murphy Jr. and Donald Newbury, locked in a Colorado Springs hotel room, to speak to a local TV reporter. "I've done crime, you've got to face the music," said Newbury, claiming the Texas penal system had become corrupt and given up on rehabilitation. "They're giving kids so much time they'll never see the light of day." Moments after their two five-minute interviews, the men, who had been heavily armed, walked out into the frigid cold–and custody.
The resolution was a welcome relief, given that the group's Dec. 13 escape had been such an effective mixture of cunning and brutality. The inmates–Rivas, 30, serving life for kidnapping and a string of armed robberies; Joseph Garcia, 29, doing 50 years for murder; Randy Halprin, in for 30 years for beating a child; Harper, 37, a serial rapist serving 50 years; Murphy, 39, sentenced to 50 years for aggravated sexual assault; Newbury, 38, serving 99 years for armed robbery; and Michael Rodriguez, 38, doing life for capital murder–were working in the prison's lightly supervised maintenance area. Over the course of more than two hours they quietly overpowered 11 prison employees and three other prisoners, then jumped two guards near the back gate, stole a cache of weapons and made off in a prison truck. Despite the fact that they had only a short head start, they got to town, ditched the truck and vanished in one or two vehicles that had evidently been left for them by an accomplice. Back at the prison, authorities found an ominous note: "You haven't heard the last of us."
Prophetic words. Two days later two men later identified as Rivas and Newbury allegedly robbed a Houston suburbs Radio Shack, making off with police scanners, two-way radios and a small amount of cash. Nine days later, on Christmas Eve, the seven reportedly made their move on an Oshman's sporting goods store in the Dallas suburb of Irving. This time things did not go so smoothly. As the gang prepared to flee with more than 25 guns, winter clothing and some $70,000 in cash and checks, Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins, 29, pulled up to the back of the store to check out a report of suspicious activity. He was ambushed and shot in the head and in the back. As they made their escape, the men pulled Hawkins from his cruiser and ran over him with a Ford Explorer SUV.
With that cold-blooded murder, the seven became public enemies No. 1, their pictures splashed nationwide across newspapers and television reports, including four segments on America's Most Wanted. For weeks, though, frustrated law-enforcement officials got nothing more than wispy reports of sightings. In addition, Hawkins's mother, Jayne, was incensed that the state of Texas had contributed only $7,000 to the eventual $500,000 reward pool, with the bulk coming from the city of Irving and federal agencies. Says she: "I think that's an insult."
All along authorities had known that in Rivas they were up against a sophisticated and resourceful criminal. Raised by his grandmother in a blue-collar section of El Paso, he graduated in 1988 from Ysleta High School, where he steered clear of gangs and other troublemakers. One of his teachers, Jeanne Steele, recalls being impressed but also a bit unsettled by the young man, who was almost too polite to be genuine. "George is really smart and really good at manipulating people," says Steele. "He was a remarkable individual. If he had applied himself in what we think of as the proper way, he would be a CEO by now." After graduation, Rivas studied engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. But he soon chose to apply his mind to a string of well-planned armed robberies in three states. Instead of bursting into the stores waving a gun, Rivas would often enter around closing time, chat up the managers to gain their confidence and then subdue the employees. In 1993 he was caught robbing a Toys "R" Us, was tried for that and another robbery, both of which involved taking captives, and drew 17 consecutive life sentences.
Police assumed that Rivas was the one who held the gang together. Still, many law-enforcement experts voiced amazement that the men had not scattered in different directions. "Profilers and psychologists would agree," says Don Clark, the former head of the FBI office in Houston, "that this is not a group that you could put together and expect to stay together for any significant period of time." And then there was the obvious fact that gangs of seven tend to be conspicuous. But Danny Coulson, the former head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, speculates that what may have driven the fugitives—career predators who suddenly found themselves in the role of prey–was the simple comfort factor. "They were out in the cold, hard world, where everyone is looking for them. It's like a siege mentality, so they stay together," says Coulson. "It was stupid, but fortunately [criminals] do stupid things, so we can catch them."
As it turned out, the group was in fact starting to unravel. The day before the arrests in Woodland Park, Murphy and Newbury had set off on their own in a maroon van, possibly because they were bent on staging more robberies, while their five cohorts at the Coachlight were reportedly hoping to get false papers and look for legitimate work in Denver. Authorities were led to the RV park by area residents, who recognized the escapees from America's Most Wanted. Considering the grim predictions that the fugitives would not be taken without bloodshed, the operation against Rivas and the other four went exceedingly smoothly. Acting on tips, a task force of FBI agents, local deputies and SWAT teams had staked out the RV park. When Rivas, Garcia and Rodriguez drove to the Western Gas and Convenience Store on Monday morning, they were followed and quickly surrounded in the parking lot before they could reach for their handguns. Back at the Coachlight, Halprin readily agreed to surrender, but Harper balked. A former second lieutenant in the Army reserve, he asked to speak with his father, then shot himself in the chest.
As the day progressed, more elements of the case fell into place. Rivas reportedly confessed to the killing of Officer Hawkins, a crime that automatically carries the death penalty in Texas. The truck used by Murphy and Newbury was discovered in a restaurant parking lot in Colorado Springs, prompting authorities to intensify their search there. While a sweep of a hotel adjacent to the lot revealed nothing, another tip turned police attention to a Holiday Inn a couple of hundred yards away. Police tried to talk the men out by phone and even agreed to their extraordinary TV interview. "We attempted to be as friendly and neighborly as we could," said Murphy of their ability to blend into the community. "That was part of the cover." Then, taking one last cue from their fallen leader Rivas, the two men ended the chase.
Michael Haederle and Vickie Bane in Woodland Park and Bob Stewart in Irving