PLEASANTON, Calif. — A man believed to be a fugitive from the federal prison here commandeered a helicopter at gunpoint Wednesday, flew back to the prison and swept away a woman inmate in a daring midday escape.
Law enforcement agents were searching for Ronald J. McIntosh, 42, a one-time "model prisoner" who escaped last week, and fellow inmate Samantha D. Lopez, 37, who was serving a 50-year term for a series of brazen bank robberies and attempted robberies in the South.
Late Wednesday evening, the helicopter was located in a parking lot near an abandoned Union Pacific railroad tunnel three miles west of the small community of Sunol, Alameda County sheriff's deputies reported. The lot, on Niles Canyon Road, is about eight miles from the escape scene here, Sheriff's Lt. Dean Hess said.
Sheriff's deputies, Fremont police officers and FBI agents swarmed over the aircraft seeking clues after a call from a passer-by indicated there was a helicopter at the location, Hess said. The helicopter appeared to be in good condition.
The incident began when a man believed to be McIntosh chartered the $450-per-hour helicopter from Aris Helicopters Ltd. at the San Jose airport. The man described himself as a land developer who wanted to make an aerial survey of property near Danville. Once aloft, he pulled a semiautomatic pistol on pilot Peter Szabo and ordered him to land in a rural area near Danville, about 10 miles from the prison.
Forcing Szabo out of the aircraft and taking over the controls of the Hughes 500D helicopter, the hijacker flew to the Federal Correction Institute a few miles outside Pleasanton. As prisoners and prison guards looked on, he touched down in an area of the recreation yard believed to have been marked off by Lopez, who quickly climbed aboard. Then the helicopter lifted off and flew south. The FBI, federal marshals and other law enforcement agencies launched an immediate search.
Federal prison warden Rob Roberts said guards inside the prison carry no firearms and had no time to intercept the helicopter. Armed guards outside the prison yard were reluctant to fire on the aircraft for fear of endangering bystanders.
"It takes a chopper no time to hit the ground," Roberts said, adding that the helicopter was over the prison only five to 10 seconds. "It's not our practice to fire on helicopters. We don't know whether the pilot is under duress. We could have a pilot with a gun to his head."
McIntosh is a twice-convicted confidence man who had been serving a four-year sentence for his conviction in a multimillion-dollar investment fraud. He disappeared Oct. 28 after Pleasanton prison officials placed him on a bus for an unescorted transfer to the federal prison in Lompoc. Prison officials said that as a model inmate, McIntosh qualified for an unsupervised transfer.
About $1.7 million of the money stolen in the investment fraud has never been accounted for, and authorities believe that McIntosh has access to it. Additionally, Lopez may know the whereabouts of about $50,000 never accounted for from her career as a bank robber.
McIntosh, who trained as a pilot in the military, and Lopez worked together at the prison's business office and were described by Roberts as being often seen walking together in the recreation yard. Male and female inmates are housed separately at the campus-style prison, but share a recreation yard.
Dick Bippus, chief deputy U.S. marshal in San Francisco, described McIntosh and Lopez as "boyfriend and girlfriend."
"The talk in Pleasanton was that there was some romantic involvement between the two," said Richard Held, FBI agent in charge of the San Francisco office.
Jerry Williford, western regional director of the federal prison system, was confounded by the escape.
Took Big Chance
"It's more than a surprise," he said in an interview from his office in Burlingame. "He (McIntosh) only had a year until his release (on parole). He took an awfully big chance for someone who would have gotten out soon."
Emerging from a debriefing with FBI agents at the Danville police station Wednesday afternoon, Szabo, the helicopter pilot, described the hijacker as acting the "perfect gentleman."
He said that while they were in the air, the man, who gave his name as Fred Holbrickson, remarked that he had been a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, and spoke knowledgeably about the land he was surveying. In short, he appeared to be what he said he was--a developer.
"I had no reason to suspect that he was not legitimate," Szabo said.
But things quickly changed when the "developer" pulled a gun. Szabo was ordered to land the helicopter, step out of the craft and surrender his shoes. Szabo said the hijacker remained on the ground for 10 minutes and repeatedly looked at his watch before taking off again at 10:45 a.m.