AP Exclusive: Witness in capture of Ariz. fugitives says he never felt threatened by the pair

By Felicia Fonseca, AP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Witness says he felt safe around Arizona fugitives

ST. JOHNS, Ariz. — Handcuffed face down on the ground, Hugh Murray quickly realized who he had been hanging out with for two days at a remote campsite as he overheard law enforcement officials say that a man detained near him was the last of the three.

His mind raced back to a week earlier, when he scanned a newspaper article about three men who escaped from a prison in northwest Arizona and the woman who helped them flee.

“I clicked on that,” Murray, 67, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Monday. “It was unbelievable until then, but then it made sense.”

Murray was visiting with the fugitives when a SWAT team swarmed the campsite, about an hour’s drive from the small community of Springerville, last Thursday after an alert U.S. Forest Service ranger, investigating what appeared to be an unattended campfire, noticed a Nissan Sentra backed suspiciously into the trees.

The ranger called in the license number, essentially ending the three-week manhunt for John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch. McCluskey was the last of three inmates who escaped July 30 from the state prison in Kingman to be captured. Welch, his fiancee and cousin, was arrested at the same time.

Murray found himself handcuffed just like the fugitives while authorities figured out who was who, later determining that he had no idea who his companions were.

He said McCluskey and Welch showed no signs of hostility toward him, never brandished the guns that authorities found when they were captured, made no mention of their recent travels — and certainly gave no indication they were two of America’s most wanted fugitives. Instead, the two were quite pleasant, Murray said.

“I hadn’t a clue they had done anything deadly, until that cop mentioned who they were,” Murray said.

McCluskey and Welch have been charged with murder and carjacking in the deaths of an Oklahoma couple in New Mexico, apparently because they were tired of sleeping in a car and coveted Gary and Linda Haas’ trailer, according to a criminal complaint.

According to the complaint, McCluskey told investigators he fired the shots that killed the Haases and wanted to kill two tractor-trailer drivers who the trio kidnapped in Kingman but was outvoted by Welch and a second escapee, Tracy Province who was arrested Aug. 9 in Wyoming.

McCluskey, Province and Welch pleaded not guilty Monday to escape charges, as well as kidnapping, aggravated assault and armed robbery stemming from the alleged tractor-trailer hijacking. They are being held on a $1 million bond on the charges.

Even if they could post bail, the Arizona Department of Corrections would still retain custody of McCluskey, Province and the third inmate, Daniel Renwick, who fled with them and was captured in Colorado on Aug. 1.

McCluskey was treated Tuesday after using a plastic razor to cut his neck and forearm, said Mohave County sheriff’s spokeswoman Trish Carter, adding that the wounds were serious but not life threatening.

Authorities said McCluskey expressed regret at not having killed the forest ranger whose tip led to their capture and said he would have shot officers at the campsite if he could have reached his gun in his tent.

Authorities in Apache County said they believed Murray could have been the next victim.

“A wild guess, they might have offed me for my car and some of my equipment,” Murray said. “Good police work. I’m glad they came in when they did.”

Murray first encountered a tough- and grim-looking McCluskey — the kind of appearance he called typical in the mountainous area — while typing up data Wednesday for field work on the Arizona willow, which he studies as a hobby.

“He was backwards rough, but (turned out) fine,” Murray said.

McCluskey asked for a jack handle to help fix a flat on the beat-up Nissan. Murray hesitated, knowing he’d have to dig through a trunk load of stuff to retrieve it, but relented.

McCluskey returned the jack handle with a smile and a thanks, along with an invite to the couple’s campsite for a hamburger. Murray declined the meal but visited with the couple for about half an hour, then returned to his own camp site, about three-fourths of a mile away.

The fugitives warmed up to Murray when he started talking about what he knows best — nature — and recommended hiking trails. In fact, Murray did much of the talking in the few hours they spent together Wednesday and Thursday.

The trio went out Thursday to gather mushrooms that McCluskey sliced up, seasoned and served in wheat tortillas with cheese.

Murray said he never asked for their names, and they didn’t ask for his.

Murray was unsure when the couple arrived at the campground nestled amid spruce trees at the foot of the Mount Baldy Wilderness in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. McCluskey and Welch set up what appeared to be a fairly new tent in an area designated for those with horses or stock animals.

The campground has no amenities, other than a handful of horse corrals and a toilet. A bend in the nearby road made it impossible for Murray, McCluskey or Welch to see authorities approaching the area as Murray boiled water for a vegetable stew.

“It was a real good job,” Murray said. “They came in really quick.”

After about half an hour, Welch quietly apologized to Murray, saying “Sorry about this bust or mess we got you in,” he recalled.

“I think that apology she gave me was really sincere,” he said. “I know she’s facing a hard life.”

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