Ariz. escapee, fiancee may be trying to get to Canada through vast, wild land in N. Montana

By Matt Volz, AP
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Searchers seek AZ escapee in vast northern Montana

HELENA, Mont. — The search for an escaped Arizona inmate and his fiancee turned Wednesday to a valley in northern Montana near the Canadian border, where the 10,000-foot mountains of Glacier National Park meet the vast, open Great Plains.

Border agents stopped vehicles leaving the United States, scanning the faces of the occupants to see whether they match the description of the fugitives, who apparently have dyed their hair to try to disguise themselves. Even with the tightened security, the wild, open land and the porous border could make it easy for the pair to slip into Canada.

Officials on both sides of the border said Wednesday they did not believe Arizona escapee John McCluskey and his suspected accomplice, Casslyn Welch, had crossed into Canada. The search was concentrated on the Babb-St. Mary valley 10 miles south of the border, Glacier County Undersheriff Jeff Fauque said.

Welch was last spotted Sunday at a restaurant in St. Mary on the eastern border of Glacier National Park, Fauque said.

“We’ve had multiple, I guess you could call them leads, that we’ve checked out in the area. In layman’s terms, none of those have panned out,” Fauque said. “Tremendous resources have been spent on this search; hopefully they are caught really soon.”

Two of the escaped inmates already have been caught since their escape from a northwest Arizona prison on July 30. New Mexico authorities have linked the group to the deaths of an Oklahoma couple whose bodies were found in their charred camper in eastern New Mexico a week ago.

Officials with the U.S. Marshals Service, Glacier County Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Customs and Border Protection have blanketed the area of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

“We’re doing outbound checks at ports of entry to ensure any fugitive is unable to utilize that avenue of escape,” U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Mike Milne said late Tuesday.

A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter joined the search Tuesday, but authorities on both sides of the border acknowledged it was impossible to completely secure it.

Fidencio Rivera, chief deputy U.S. marshal for the Arizona district, told The Associated Press Wednesday the two apparently have changed their appearance.

“Welch has dyed her hair blond, McCluskey has dyed his hair black,” Rivera said.

The information was developed through interviews with people who last saw the couple, Rivera said.

Ten miles north of St. Mary, residents of Babb have been frightened by the presence of police cars patrolling the streets. The town of 700 normally sees a patrol car every other week, said Tedi Burns, a bartender at the Babb Bar Cattle Baron Supper Club.

“This is a small town and nobody can find them,” said Burns, 19. “They could be hiding in the woods. We have mountains around us. We have a bunch of backwoods they could be hiding around.”

Another prisoner who escaped with McCluskey was due in a Glenwood Springs, Colo., courtroom Wednesday. Daniel Renwick, who was serving two consecutive 22-year sentences for second-degree murder, was captured Aug. 1 in western Colorado.

A day earlier, the third escapee, Tracy Province, appeared in a Cody, Wyo., court and waived his right to fight extradition to Arizona. Province was caught Monday as he walked in sleepy Meeteetse, Wyo., steps from a church where he sat in the pews a day earlier and sang “Your Grace Is Enough.”

Province, McCluskey and Renwick escaped from the medium-security Arizona State Prison near Kingman on July 30 after authorities say Welch threw wire cutters over the perimeter fence. Welch, 44, is McCluskey’s fiancee and cousin.

Province was serving a life sentence for murder and robbery out of Pima County, Ariz. McCluskey was serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm out of Maricopa County, Ariz.

The Arizona attorney general’s office on Monday charged McCluskey’s mother and ex-wife with helping the inmates after they escaped.

Forensic evidence linked the escapees to the killings of an Oklahoma couple in New Mexico. New Mexico State Police spokesman Peter Olson declined to elaborate.

The badly burned skeletal remains of Linda and Gary Haas — both 61 and from Tecumseh, Okla. — were found in a charred camper last Wednesday on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico. Their pickup was found later 100 miles west in Albuquerque.

Associated Press writers Bob Moen in Cheyenne, Wyo., Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mont., and Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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