Texas prison inmate Michael Rodriguez, one of seven trusty inmates who overpowered a Connally Unit corrections officer and several civilian employees, stole a pickup truck and some guns and escaped from the prison near Kenedy, Texas, later killing Irving Police Officer Aubrey Hawkins. (AP Photo/Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice)
By Michael Graczyk
LIVINGSTON, Texas — Michael Rodriguez remembers the exhilaration of newfound freedom as he rode in the back of a stolen truck, knowing he and six of his fellow convicts had staged an improbably successful escape from a maximum security Texas prison.
Then he recalls seeing his photo on national TV and grasping the reality that their grandiose Hollywood-style plan to rob a Nevada casino had gone terribly awry. He and his fellow fugitives were being hunted everywhere as the killers of a suburban Dallas police officer, Aubrey Hawkins.
This week, Rodriguez, a participant in one of Texas' most notorious prison breaks, is set to become the first of the six surviving members of the infamous "Texas 7" — all of them now on death row — to go to the death chamber.
"I'm glad we got caught, so no one else would get hurt," Rodriguez said, discussing with a reporter for the first time his involvement in the crime spree eight years ago.
"It was so thrilling that we actually got away with it," he said of the December 2000 break from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Connally Unit in South Texas. "But after Mr. Hawkins got killed, and I saw Peter Jennings on the TV news with our pictures, I thought: 'Oh my God, Oh my God. Am I in trouble!' "
After some six weeks on the lam, the gang finally was captured in Colorado. One of the seven escapees killed himself as authorities closed in.
"We started to believe in the delusion," Rodriguez said of their continuing success evading an intense manhunt and their plans to knock off a casino. "I'm glad it ended when it did. It would have been a mess."
This week's execution, set for Thursday, is a punishment Rodriguez, 45, said he's been seeking and is welcoming.
"I have a lot of people here telling me how unfair the system is," he told The Associated Press. "At some point in our lives, you have to have some sort of accountability. I can't see how people in my situation deny that."
So Rodriguez, who first went to prison with a life sentence for arranging the 1992 slaying of his wife in San Antonio, worked for more than a year to convince the courts he was competent to drop his appeals and volunteer for execution.
Sentence goes forward
A judge finally signed off on his decision to die last year, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a de facto nationwide moratorium on the death penalty while it considered whether lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel.
When the justices upheld in April the method as proper, a judge in Dallas County reset the execution date for this week.
"I'm just moving forward," he said from a small visiting cell at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, home to the state's death row. "Look. I'm guilty of what they said — everything."
And he said he wants the family of his former wife, Theresa, and the relatives of Hawkins, the slain Irving police officer, "to know how truly sorry I am, and I am willing to pay."
"I think it's a fair sentence," he added. "I need to pay back. I can't pay back monetarily. This is the way."
Lori Hawkins, whose husband was killed, calls Rodriguez's apologies "a little too late."
It wouldn't be appropriate to characterize his voluntary execution as a joyful occurrence, she said, but "he's the first one to really admit guilt so far as to be where they're at."
"This didn't start with Aubrey," she said. "It started with his wife. I'm glad he won't be wasting our money, taxpayer money" with prolonged appeals and extended prison time, she said.
"But this didn't have to happen," Hawkins said. "Aubrey didn't need to die."
Rodriguez and six other inmates overpowered workers at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Connally Unit near Kenedy in South Texas on Dec. 13, 2000. They took the workers' clothes, then grabbed guns from the prison armory and fled in a stolen prison truck.
He was hiding under some trash in the back of the truck on the bitterly cold day, believing officers would be reluctant to vigilantly check IDs and the truck contents.
"No one wanted to go outside," he said of their ease in getting out. "It was an experience. It's real strange to think on that and how I got here.
"You don't forget it. Sadly, a lot of people got hurt."
They drove to a nearby Wal-Mart, where Rodriguez's father had parked another truck to help his son and the other inmates. Raul Rodriguez eventually would plead guilty to being involved in the escape plan.
He said George Rivas, a convicted robber serving 18 life terms, became the group's ringleader after befriending them with outrageous stories of his exploits.
"Delusions of grandeur," he said. "We all bought into that."
When Rodriguez made it known he had access to a truck outside and was hoping to escape, the plans accelerated.
He said Rivas concocted a plan to rob a suburban Dallas sporting goods store by posing as employees of its security service. It's a ruse Rivas had used before in his native El Paso. They got uniforms from a used clothing store in Houston and radios from an electronics store holdup.
"George Rivas thought he planned everything," Rodriguez said.
They'd brought a dozen plastic ties to bind store employees but were surprised to find 17 workers inside the store, he said.
"We didn't expect that many. We only had enough for 12," Rodriguez said.
While some gang members scrambled to find materials to restrain the remaining workers and others gathered weapons, a woman waiting outside noticed the activity inside the store, grew suspicious and called police.
It was Christmas Eve.
Hawkins caught the call. He'd been having dinner with his wife and son a few blocks away.
Rodriguez said radios they were using to communicate with each other "didn't pick up real well" and impeded urgings from Patrick Murphy, a convicted rapist who was posted as a lookout, that a police officer was driving in the parking lot.
The stolen guns and money were tossed in sleeping bags. They tried to set off a smoke bomb, but it didn't work. Larry James Harper, another convicted rapist, tripped as he opened the door to leave the store.
"I saw the police car," said Rodriguez, who said his reaction was: "Oh my God!"
He said he ducked and hid under the sleeping bags filled with loot.
"I just heard shots — pop, pop, pop. I thought it was the police. But no, it was us," he said.
He said he learned a couple of his cohorts had been wounded in the gunfire and went to the police car, where the officer appeared to already be dead.
"I removed his pistol and put it in the back of my waistband," Rodriguez said. "I tried to remove him from the car."
Fleeing the scene
The car lurched forward and ran into the back of an SUV they planned to use as their escape vehicle. He said Joseph Garcia, a convicted murderer serving 50 years, jumped into the police car as he and the officer were on the ground.
He said Rivas was behind the wheel of the SUV, and he saw the backup lights go on and the truck start going in reverse.
"I rolled and left the officer there," he said, sighing. "That's how he got run over."
They then fled to a motel.
"It was just chaos," Rodriguez said.
The gang headed west and north, winding up in Colorado.
They had IDs taken from employees during the store robbery. Rivas, who Rodriguez said could charm anyone, hoodwinked a former police chief in Pueblo, Colo., purchasing a big RV from him with cash taken in the store robbery. He said Rivas even went to a police supply store, posing as a lawman, and successfully ordered body armor to be used in the Nevada casino heist.
On Jan. 22, 2001, a day after authorities were tipped by a trailer park resident outside Colorado Springs, Colo., Rivas, Rodriguez, Garcia and Randy Halprin were arrested. Harper committed suicide.
"I'd never seen anything like that in my life," Rodriguez said, marveling at the firepower SWAT team officers showed. But he said officers never abused him.
The last two fugitives, Murphy and Donald Newbury, a convicted robber, surrendered two days later in Colorado Springs.
At his capital murder trial, defense lawyers argued Rodriguez should be spared because of sexual abuse he suffered while attending Central Catholic High School in San Antonio.
It was all a lie, he said.
Rodriguez said the clergyman, a Catholic teaching brother, "didn't do a thing to me."
"I felt so horrible, the depth of evil I fell into," he said. "That whole thing, then going gay, that was a lie. It's not true. We just had to come up with something. It was a big fabrication.
"It really bothers me."
He blamed the original crime that landed him in prison for life, the murder-for-hire slaying of his wife in 1992, on "the lust of a coed" he met while taking classes at what then was Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
"I can't explain it," he said. "I don't want to hurt my in-laws. My wife was a wonderful person and didn't deserve this. I fell for a coed. It was stupid. I sit in my cell and think: How the heck did I get here?
"But I was a willing participant. You can call it lust ... I really thought I would get off, like a lot of people who are deluded."
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Rodriguez insisted he is determined to carry through with the execution.