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Last 2 Texas Fugitives Found in Colorado

Manhunt: A tip leads police to pair holed up in a hotel. While on the lam, the 7 escapees boldly blended in with unsuspecting residents.

January 24, 2001|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Authorities late Tuesday surrounded a hotel where the last two of the seven inmates who escaped from a Texas prison were holed up.

"We got 'em," said Larry Fitzgerald, spokesman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Police Lt. Skip Arms said officers were in contact with the two fugitives, Patrick Murphy Jr., a 39-year-old rapist, and armed robber Donald Newbury, 38.

Arms said police got a tip during the day that the men were in the Holiday Inn, which is two blocks from a motel parking lot where their van was found abandoned earlier Tuesday.

Police officers and SWAT team members surrounded the Holiday Inn and evacuated the rooms near where the two men were. Arms said officers were negotiating with them.

For a gang of fugitives on the run, the notorious Texas Seven maintained a high profile in the nearby small town of Woodland Park, Colo. They were seen dancing at a nightclub in Colorado Springs. They frequented a Tex-Mex restaurant, where they were remembered fondly as generous tippers. They drove up to Cripple Creek and gambled in the casinos.

They told neighbors at the mobile home park where they were staying that they were members of a religious group and even attended Bible study classes.

Authorities believe the men--convicted rapists, child abusers, kidnappers and murderers--had been hiding out in this friendly mountain enclave for as long as three weeks while a nationwide manhunt was underway. Their 40-day odyssey--which began with a daring jailbreak in southern Texas--had ended for five of them here Monday with the capture of four convicts and the suicide of another. All over Woodland Park on Tuesday, residents were shaking their heads that such fearsome men could have moved so easily among them. And so boldly.

"I remember thinking, 'This guy is the perfect customer,' " said Pam Smith, a waitress at the Tres Hombres Tex-Mex Tavern--a rowdy establishment where at least five of the convicts had become regulars. Michael Rodriguez, in particular, was recalled for his hearty appetite and lavish tips.

"He was in here last week," Smith said. "I remember he had the Whiskey steak, soup, salad, chips and salsa and something else. Big eater. He was a real nice guy. And he tipped $4 on a $22 bill. Around here, that's pretty good."

On Tuesday, Rodriguez was being held in the Teller County Jail, along with the three other former fugitives. Their undoing came in the form of a tip to the TV show "America's Most Wanted." Police were not saying who would get the $500,000 reward offered for their capture.

Law enforcement authorities were on high alert Tuesday as the search for the final fugitives intensified. A Colorado state trooper died after he lost control of his vehicle while racing to respond to an erroneous sighting of the van.

Murphy and Newbury apparently abandoned the van early Tuesday in a parking lot near Interstate 25.

Mark Mershon, the FBI agent in charge of Colorado, provided more detail about the arsenal authorities found in the 34-foot RV where the convicts had been living in Woodland Park. He said 35 weapons were found "loaded, cocked and ready for action," along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, $10,000 and receipts for the purchase of body armor from stores in Denver and Aurora, Colo.

Also recovered were packages of hair dye, an extensive medical kit and a suicide note from convict Larry Harper--who killed himself Monday during a standoff with SWAT teams. Mershon did not disclose the contents of the note.

Mershon said the men arrested Monday--George Rivas, Joseph Garcia, Randy Halprin and Rodriguez--were cooperating.

With television satellite trucks parked along the highway that runs through Woodland Park and with reporters fanned out seemingly everywhere, townspeople gathered in coffee shops and on front lawns to talk about the recent remarkable events. They spun a tale of seven felons who came to town, settled into Space No. 17 at the Coachlight RV Park and set about blending in.

The convicts furthered the deception that they were part of a religious group by playing Christian music--very loudly--inside their cramped motor home. Some attended Bible study at the RV park. Harper "seemed like a pretty nice guy," said one neighbor who saw him at a Bible study group.

Sgt. Bill Sumner of the Woodland Park Police Department said that the pious trappings were a clever disguise to use in this churchgoing town of 7,500 people.

There even was evidence that the fugitives intended to dig in here. One sign of domesticity was noted by Dwain Burkholder, who works at the post office. He said the men took an application to open a post office box but never returned it.

The convicts became so much a part of the community that they patronized local hot spots. Some cavorted at America's Beach Club, a large dance club in Colorado Springs, on Thursday night. Two women said they remember dancing with two men from the gang.

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