HOUSTON — After a week of searching through swampy, bug-swarming river bottoms, law officers hunting death row inmate Martin E. Gurule finally found their man Thursday--dead, beneath a bridge over the Trinity River near Huntsville, with tantalizing hints about how he'd made his way over the prison's two razor-wired security fences.
The body of Gurule, 29, was swathed in cardboard and two sets of heavy underwear, according to officials. Prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald speculated that the armor-like wrappings had permitted Gurule to dart over perimeter fences as guards halted six of his companions in a rain of bullets on Thanksgiving night.
Gurule was the first man to break out of Texas' busy death row since the era of Bonnie and Clyde.
His body was found about 5:30 p.m. by two off-duty prison employees who were fishing about a mile east of the prison. Authorities said the body was bloody but lacked obvious bullet wounds, and it appeared Gurule had been dead for some time.
"We do not have a cause of death, but we suspect drowning," Fitzgerald said.
The discovery of the body brought a measure of satisfaction to law enforcers after a round-the-clock manhunt with 500 officers, dogs and heat-sensing helicopters. State officials earlier Thursday offered a $5,000 reward for Gurule's capture, and only hours before the body was found, Gov. George W. Bush had asked the Texas Rangers to help in the investigation of how he broke out.
For the family of one of the two men Gurule and his girlfriend killed during a 1992 robbery at a restaurant in Corpus Christi, his death brought relief. The U&I restaurant is still operated by George Piperis, whose brother Minas was slain.
"I don't care how he died, just that he's dead," said Piperis. "They found him dead. That's fine. I thank God it happened. He killed innocent lives and he deserved to die for it."
But for Amalia Marez, the news was the worst possible outcome during a season that always seemed dark for her grandson. "Baby Martin," as Marez still refers to him, always got depressed in November, the month of his birthday and that of his late mother, Marez said. But though she and Gurule corresponded regularly, her grandson never gave any sign of his desperate plan, she said.
"Today I was praying that God would take care of him," said Marez, a 66-year-old baby sitter. "Nothing dawned in my mind that he would die. I figured he was either in the woods or just traveling, just hungry somewhere."
The escape attempt from the Ellis Unit outside Huntsville began when the seven inmates hid in a recreation yard after leaving cloth dummies in their beds to deceive prison guards. The seven then used a hacksaw to cut through a fence into the main prison yard and scaled the roof. They dashed for the outside perimeter several hours later.
The leadership of the state criminal justice system came under attack for Gurule's success. Tuesday, officials suspended the prison's "work capable" program. Under the program, about 150 model prisoners like Gurule were free to leave their cells on death row and visit other inmates on the block.
Gurule worked as a janitor in the program, while others in the group that tried to escape worked in a prison garment-making shop.
"No prison is escape-proof," Wayne Scott, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Dallas Morning News. "Even Alcatraz had escapes. Any time you have human beings, you are going to have human error."
Last year, Texas executed 37 people, far more than any other state. There have been 17 executions so far this year.
The last successful breakout from Texas death row occurred in 1934, when Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow stormed into Huntsville's Eastman prison with guns firing. They killed two guards and released Barrow's cousin Raymond Hamilton, who was recaptured, escaped again, caught again and then executed.