Saturday, January 21, 2017

Remembering Texas Seven's capture 16 years ago


Now, it has been more than 16 years since members of “The Texas Seven,” a group of prisoners who escaped from the John B. Connally Unit near Kenedy, Texas, on Dec. 13, 2000, and later killed Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins on Dec. 19, 2000, were arrested about a month later on a cold January Monday, right here in Woodland Park.

Autopsy showed that Officer Hawkins had sustained 11 gunshots and had been run over by the escaped convicts as they fled the scene of robbery in Irving, Texas. Four of the convicts were arrested at the Western Convenience Store on U.S. Highway 24, in Woodland Park, Jan 21, 2001. One of the seven committed suicide in an RV park nearby, rather than be arrested. The remaining two others were apprehended at hotel on Garden of the Gods Road, two days later on Jan. 23, 2001, in Colorado Springs.

At the time of the breakout, the reported ringleader of the Texas Seven, 30-year-old George Rivas, was serving 18 consecutive 15-to-life sentences. Michael Anthony Rodriguez, 38, was serving a 99-to-life term; while Larry James Harper, 37, Joseph Garcia and Patrick Henry Murphy, Jr., both 39, were all serving 50-year sentences. Donald Keith Newbury, the member with the longest rap sheet of the group, was serving a 99-year sentence; and the youngest member, Randy Halprin, 23, was serving a 30-year sentence for injury to a child.

Locally, Teller County Sheriff Frank Fehn got a tip from people who had watched the program America’s Most Wanted that Saturday night long ago, and said that “The Texas Seven” might be living in the RV park down the road. The sheriff, posing as a tourist, loaded up his wife's RV with heavily-armed state and federal agents, and that Sunday night drove into the trailer park so he could monitor the group. On that Monday morning, when Rivas and two others jumped in their Jeep and left the trailer park, the police made a decision to act. Frank Fehn told it this way.

"They were followed to a Western Convenience Store. They pull up to the gas pumps. Two units come from behind.

At least three, if not four, units boxed them in and immediately exited the police vehicles, weapons drawn, and totally surprised them.”

Rivas recalled it like this: “There was a man in front of me with an AR-15 pointing at my chest, officer next to me suited up in body armor. Car was still on, it was in gear. I had my foot on the brake. I had an opportunity to run.”

But Fehn says the escapees had no chance to flee.

“They did not have an opportunity to resist. If they did, it would not have been a blood bath, but three people woulda been dead.”

The three, Fehn noted, would have been the inmates.

Frank Fehn, legendary former Sheriff of Teller County (and at one time Teller County Coroner), also a former New York homicide detective, passed away peacefully at home on April 23, 2013. Services were held at Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade, CO. He is interned at Fort Logan National Cemetery with military honors in Denver. Frank was retired and lived in Lake Havasu City, AZ with his wife of 27 years, Lucile.

Lucile Fehn, Frank's wife was Teller County Commissioner at the time. When I talked to her last week, she described those eventful days 16 years ago this way.

"I was going to a meeting on open space in Canon City with Kevin Tanski, (Teller County Parks Coordinator), that morning," Lucile said. "And Frank had been out most the night, and I didn't really talk to him about it, but I noticed that morning that he came home and changed the license plates on my RV, and left with it," Lucile Fehn told me last week.

"When we got to the meeting Canon City, one of the County Commissioners there said, 'Your husband got five of the Texas Seven. Two were still on the loose. I told Tanski to watch for the vehicle they were described as driving," Lucile Fehn said.

For months afterward, Frank was on TV, in newspapers, and Lucile said Frank "talked with George Rivas for days on end in Teller County jail, before he was moved back to Texas."

El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson, described it like this, back then.

"We have had this location under surveillance since before 2 o'clock this morning, so we know they didn't slip out during this time. So they do have a bit of a head start on us."

Anderson said Halprin was treated for a gunshot in the foot, which the sheriff said the escapee had suffered before Monday's arrest —possibly on the night of a robbery in Irving, Texas, in which the escapees are suspected of killing police officer Aubrey Hawkins.

Anderson said at the time he didn't know if Halprin had been shot by Hawkins or whether the wound was self-inflicted.

Teller County (Colorado) Undersheriff Kevin Dougherty said three of the men were arrested in the area of the Coachlight Motel and R.V. Park.

"Three of them were arrested out of a silver Jeep that was pulled over down at the Western Convenience as it left the motor home that's up in the Coachlight area. And the fourth one was taken from the motor home area," he said.

Anderson characterized the surrender of the three as "reluctant but overwhelmed."

"The SWAT team descended on that vehicle in a pretty significant way," Anderson said. "I think they would have fought it out if there had been less of a presence, but I think they realized it would be fruitless."

Dougherty said he believed weapons were confiscated in the arrest.

Anderson said two of the three captured in the Jeep -- he didn't say which -- had tried to alter their appearance. One, he said, had dyed his hair blonde and another "almost orange-red."

Police arrested four of the seven men, who escaped from a maximum security prison in Texas on December 13, that Monday morning

Mac Stringfellow, chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the four were captured without incident. "No shots were fired," Stringfellow said.

Authorities said those under arrest are: George Rivas, Joseph Garcia, Michael Rodriguez and Randy Halprin.

I remember it like this.

On that Monday morning many years ago, we watched out the front window of the Ute Pass Courier newspaper office in Woodland Park, Colo., as multiple emergency vehicles began filling up the newspaper parking lot.

“No information at this time,” is what they emergency staff told us when we tried to find out what was going on.

After nearly 20 minutes of being completely in the dark of what kind of operation was taking place in our own neighborhood, we discovered that police, including local city and county officers, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FBI and federal marshals, arrested members of the Texas Seven in the Coachlight mobile home park directly to the east of us.

The seven inmates made their break from a maximum-security prison near San Antonio, Texas, six weeks prior to the excitement near our office. Before showing up in our town, police say the fugitives killed an Irving, Texas, police officer, shooting him 11 times and then running over him as they looted a sporting goods store for clothing, weapons, ammunition and more than $70,000 in cash.

On August 14, 2008, Michael Anthony Rodriguez became the first of the gang to be executed for his part in the killing of Irving Officer Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve in 2000. The rest of the surviving Seven’s cases are in various stages of appeal in the Texas courts.

Rodriguez, claiming a religious conversion on death row, asked for years that his appeals be dropped so that he could face his punishment and stand a better chance at going to heaven.

George Rivas, was executed almost four years later, on February 29, 2012.

Donald Newbury, was executed by lethal injection on February 4, 2015.

The remaining three members are incarcerated on death row at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, located in West Livingston.

Three of the escapees were surrounded in Woodland Park by a police SWAT team at a convenience store a few miles down the road as they left the Coachlight RV Park to get their morning coffee. At the same time that was happening, police surrounded the RV in the park with two other fugitives inside. By using a bullhorn, police were able to get one of the two in the RV to surrender. The holdout, Ron Harper, took his own life by shooting himself twice in the chest. He used two different weapons, according to information released later by the county coroner. Two of the men remained at large for two more days and were finally captured in a Colorado Springs hotel room about 15 miles from here.

By the time we knew what was happening, the calls from Texas television stations, CNN and other national media were already coming in. At times, three people from our newspaper would be on a phone with TV stations or other news organizations. With only four voice lines, it made it tough to get our own business taken care of. The TV stations would call and then pass us back and forth between affiliates, live talk shows, and various news programs. By late afternoon, however, area phone lines became too busy to call us or anyone else in Woodland Park.

From Monday night until early Wednesday morning, TV trucks with satellite dishes on top and shivering reporters out front, stretched from the bottom of our parking lot, down a half mile of Highway 24. We loaned phone lines, fax machines, desk space, and offered directions, travel advice and restaurant recommendations for reporters and photographers working for outfits including Reuters, The New York Times, America’s Most Wanted, Time, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune and others.

The media circus gradually split up and migrated to several nearby locations including the Teller County Jail, the Teller County Courthouse in Cripple Creek, and down the hill to Colorado Springs where the last two were captured.

Reporter stragglers for various national publications and TV shows were still wandering into our office a month later.

In the midst of the excitement that Tuesday morning, reporters and photographers from The Denver Post, working a story about the little newspaper office near the big story, had a good laugh about our light tables.

Their amusement with our antique equipment, the instant info and live feeds, along with the exposure to national media’s top-of-the-line technology made us realize how fast the news business is evolving, even in the weekly newspaper world.

Granted, our papers were probably about seven years behind where we should be in terms of technology, but how things have changed, even for a one- or two-horse operation like ours. Seven years ago, a small weekly probably wouldn’t be moving photos and pages around on the Internet. No PDF workflows. No affordable digital cameras. No cell phones that worked in our mountains. No laptops connected to the cell phones to file stories with. Not even much of a World Wide Web.

This story broke on a Monday, which from a deadline standpoint was not bad for us as a weekly newspaper. We print our main product, the Ute Pass Courier, Tuesday afternoon and are on the street by Wednesday morning. Our initial coverage was very similar to that of the local dailies and national reporters.

On that first day, everybody was being fed much of the same info as fast as the police could pull it together. Tuesday, a few minutes before we were leaving for the printer, we received word that the police had found what they thought to be the remaining two fugitives’ van, and were conducting a room-by-room search of nearby hotel rooms in Colorado Springs. With this information, we ran with a small update box on the front of our paper near the main write-through.

As fast-moving as this story was, however, by the time we hit the street with our edition Wednesday, the remaining two fugitives were in custody, having been talked out of a Holiday Inn room with the promise of five minutes of airtime each on a local TV station.

Wednesday morning, after speaking with our news staff and realizing how frustrated they were at not being able to keep up with the story with our regular weekly schedule, we bumped the press time for another of our weekly news products and made arrangements for a special edition that would hit Thursday night. We printed enough of the special editions to insert in all three of our weekly nameplates, each having different drop dates beginning with Friday and carrying through the following week. We also printed an additional 2,500 to distribute free as soon as they were back from the 100-mile round-trip to the printer Thursday afternoon. All 2,500 were distributed to countertops at local high-traffic areas in our market by Friday night.

Competing with local dailies, national newspapers, magazines, television and news services that had larger crews dispatched on this story than we have staff in the whole building, we tried to put a good package together with "first-light" information that still had a shelf life into the next week. The special edition stretched our resources to see-through levels, but when it was put to bed, we felt pretty good about both our first-day information and the special section.

One of our reporters, Pat Hill, put together two excellent color pieces on the role local emergency services played in the raid. She then left immediately for an emergency appendectomy before the editors had a chance to read her stories.

Other reporters on our staff were offered as much as $250 per quote to shag quotes for national media outlets.

Even after a few months, locals were still talking about it, of course, and comparing their own Texas Seven stories. A few area businesses with little or no shame were trying to capitalize on the national attention, by doing things like offering "Texas Seven pizzas" or trying to auction off a pool table on Ebay that the infamous group reportedly played on. I’ve even heard members of the local chamber of commerce half-jokingly suggest changing the chamber motto from "City Above the Clouds" to "Escape to Woodland Park."

But most people here in Woodland Park were just happy that none of the locals were hurt, the bad guys were caught, and law enforcement was able to perform so efficiently.




Cutlines:

1. Photos of “The Texas Seven” distributed after their escape.

2. Frank and Lucile Fehn, in 2012.

3. Lucile Fehn, last week, in Woodland Park.

4. Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins





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