A married couple charged with murder who escaped from a US prison van last month has been captured.
The couple allegedly fled to New York after killing 72-year-old Frank Bligh in Tucson in April. Police said they may have stolen a cache of nearly 100 guns before setting fire to his house, causing an explosion.
Once the US Marshals tracked down the couple and arrested them in New York, a private security contractor was hired to bring them back to Tucson. Things went terribly wrong.
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In the small town of Blanding, Utah, Susan Barksdale, 59, pretended she was having “intestinal issues” and badly needed to go to the bathroom, US Marshal David Gonzales said. “It was compelling enough that they felt the need to pull over,” he said.
But once the two unarmed guards opened the back door, the Barksdales attacked, he said. Despite the fact that they were restrained with belly chains, they managed to overpower the two guards, tie them up and lock them in the back of the vehicle. A third inmate who had been picked up in Kansas City was also in the van, but wanted “nothing to do with” the Barksdales’ escape plan, Gonzales said.
The Barksdales took the van and headed for Vernon, Arizona, a town so small it doesn’t have a police force. There, the couple pulled up to an acquaintance’s house and took a red GMC Sierra pickup truck. One of the Barksdales drove the truck while the other continued to drive the prison van – until abandoning it in the middle of the high desert, with the three victims still locked inside, Gonzales said.
After several hours, the trio managed to break free. The Barksdales left behind the car keys, and so the guards called 911 – having no idea where they were – and followed the operator’s directions to the Apache County Sheriff’s Office in St Johns, Arizona.
By the time authorities realised the Barksdales had fled, they already had an eight-hour head start.
News of their escape flashed across TV screens and on highway signs, as the Marshals urged millions of Arizona drivers to be on the lookout for the Sierra pickup. In Blanding, a town of about 3600, authorities were so worried that the local high school volleyball team was sent home early, the sheriff told AP.
Of course, the outlaws were long gone. Hundreds of people called in believing they had seen the Sierra pickup, Gonzales, said, but none panned out. “It literally just disappeared off the face of the earth,” Gonzales said of the truck.
He said at a Monday news conference that the Marshals were changing their strategy, after a fruitless search for the couple for two weeks. Based on tips they’d received, the Marshals believed the Barksdales were hiding out somewhere east of Snowflake, Arizona, an isolated enclave where dozens have gone to live off the grid, some of whom believe they suffer from environmental illnesses that make it impossible for them to live in populated areas among pollution and technology.
On Wednesday night, the Barksdales were discovered hiding out at a residence inside the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, and were taken into custody by the US Marshals Service and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office after more than two weeks on the run, a US Marshal told The Washington Post.
The Marshals have not revealed what led them to the couple, but Marshals had placed Blane Barksdale on its Top 15 Most Wanted list Monday, offering US$35,000 (NZ$55,000) in rewards for information leading to the arrest of both suspects.
Authorities said earlier this week that the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, and the Hells Angels motorcycle gang may have been assisting the couple. An official told The Washington Post that authorities aren’t sure yet whether those harbouring the fugitives were gang members. Blane Barksdale, 56, is allegedly affiliated with the groups, the Marshals said.
In Pima County, the Barksdales are facing charges of first-degree murder, arson, burglary and auto theft. Blane Barksdale’s nephew, Brent Mallard, 31, was also charged with arson in that case and remains in custody in Pima County.
Bligh had vanished about one week before the fire at his home. His brother reported him missing the same day of the fire, according to the Tucson Police Department, although the home was not occupied at the time it was set. His body has still not been found.