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Escapees were friendly, quiet, neighbors say; SWAT raid took all by surprise[Woodland Park, CO]

Armando Villafranca, Kim Cobb, Jim Henderson
January 24, 2001, Wednesday 2 Star Edition
Copyright 2001 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company
The Houston Chronicle
January 24, 2001, Wednesday 2 Star Edition

(WOODLAND PARK, Colo.) -- One went to Bible study. A few had a taste for doughnuts in the morning and Shiner beer in the afternoon. They were well-dressed and friendly but quiet and unobtrusive. Except for the religious music neighbors often heard booming from their motor coach, they did nothing to draw attention to themselves.

One woman here described them as "very nice guys" she would not have suspected of being escaped convicts wanted for killing a Texas police officer.

Not until Monday morning, anyway.

About 11 a.m., Sammi McCombs, 50, looked out of the window of the Western Gas and Convenience store, where she is assistant manager, and saw a familiar Jeep Cherokee stop at one of the pumps.

In an instant, the vehicle was surrounded by officers in SWAT armor with rifles trained on the driver and two passengers.

"I was in awe," McCombs said. "I didn't know what was happening. It was very smooth, very clean. It went down very quickly."

It was a busy morning. A vehicle was parked at nearly every pump, and most of the customers were queued up inside to pay their tabs. The commotion outside caught their attention, too.

"They all stood in front of the windows, which I thought was real dumb," McCombs said.

Those customers outside were ushered into the store by police. The officers then asked for five garbage bags to haul away evidence, including weapons, from the Jeep.

After 40 days on the run, George Rivas, Michael Rodriguez and Joseph Garcia had been bagged. Randy Halprin would soon follow, and Larry James Harper would kill himself.

Patrick Murphy and Donald Newbury had left town the day before in an old Ford van and were still at large. Their van was found Tuesday, abandoned in a parking lot near the Hungry Farmer cafe in Colorado Springs. Weapons and two bottles of blond hair dye were found inside.

McCombs said that hours after witnessing the arrests, when she was at home and reflected on the incident, she shuddered at her close encounters with the fugitives.

"At any time, they could have done anything to us," she said.

That thought had not occurred to her previously, she said, because the seven seemed ordinary and nonthreatening.

Rivas, Rodriguez and Garcia came in nearly every morning between 6:30 and 7:30 for coffee and pastries. She remembers all seven coming in only once. She thought they were a work crew headed for a job, and she assumed that the one she later realized was Rivas was the boss.

He was the best dressed - tan jeans, sage green shirt and baseball cap were typical attire - and he always paid for their food, sometimes with a $ 100 bill. He engaged her in small talk, but he never spoke about himself or his companions.

She also did not know he was Hispanic, because his skin was light and he had blond hair.

Colorado state Trooper Eric Zachareas had been on the job for a year and a half when he was assigned to the bust that lawmen across the country had been salivating over.

When the Jeep Cherokee left the Coachlight Motel and RV Park on Monday morning, he pulled his cruiser into line behind it, behind the unmarked vehicles of SWAT team members. The police were waiting for an opportunity to stop the Jeep somewhere away from bystanders.

"They executed in such a swift fashion that it left them (the three suspects) with basically little or no opportunity to react," he said.

After the three had been disarmed, Zachareas patted down Garcia and got him in the car.

"He gave 'yes sir, no sir' answers with no details," the trooper said.

"Are there any weapons in the trailer?" he asked. Garcia said nothing.

"Look, there are kids in that RV park," Zachareas told him. "We don't want them to get hurt."

"Yeah, I have a kid of my own," Garcia said.

En route to the Teller County jail, Garcia was silent.

Rivas apparently was more talkative. Police said he admitted to the Christmas Eve killing of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins and claimed to be remorseful over it. He reportedly told them he did not resist arrest because he "wanted this to be over with."

He also has been giving the authorities details about the gang's activities since the escape from prison Dec. 13 and details about the two fugitives still on the loose.

Rivas - an El Paso armed robber who said he always wanted to be a law officer - was widely considered to be the ringleader of the group, all of whom will be returned to Texas to face capital murder charges. Dallas County prosecutor Mike Carnes said the state will seek the death penalty for each of them in the Hawkins killing.

At their first court appearance Tuesday - a video hearing before a judge 25 miles away - the four escapees showed varying degrees of emotion, from tears to impassivity.

Teller County Judge Jackson Peters Jr. could see them on a small screen in his courtroom, and the defendants could see and hear Peters, as well. They heard him deny bond.

Garcia, Rodriguez, Halprin and Rivas sat in a row, their shoulders touching and their hands bound, all dressed in bright orange jail uniforms.

Rivas wasn't the only one who had changed his appearance. Garcia's hair is now light orange. Rodriguez has grown a full, bushy beard.

Federal charges against the four have been dropped to speed their return to Texas, which could be as early as Friday.

Rodriguez told public defender Deborah Grohs a few minutes before the hearing that he did not want to fight extradition, adding dejectedly, "I'm ready to go back to Texas."

All four appeared weary, but Halprin struggled visibly with his emotions before the hearing began. He dropped his head into his hands, sat with his hands over his mouth, and finally wiped his teary eyes with a tissue.

Peters agreed to the prosecutor's request to temporarily seal the contents of three search warrants issued against the contents of the fugitives' automobiles and impounded RV. Prosecutor David Gilbert advised Peters that some of the information contained in those warrants might be helpful to the two fugitives still at large if the information became public.

Still, how did these seven notorious, wanted fugitives manage to lose themselves in a small, picturesque tourist community?

"This all happened because of God," said Wade Holder, manager of the Coachlight RV Park. Holder said that when they arrived, the young men told him they were Christians traveling to California.

"Lots of Christian groups come through here," he said.

Holder was one of the people who tipped police that these men might be the escaped convicts. A couple from nearby Divide, Colo., also recognized the escapees.

Initially, Holder believed their story and invited them to the weekly Bible study he and his wife, Gina, lead at the park.

Harper, a serial rapist, was the only one to accept. Going by the name Jim, he not only attended but participated enough to impress the others with his knowledge of the Bible. He even took some of his classmates to lunch and picked up the tab.

Rod Porteous, 50, of Palm Springs, Calif., had been staying at the park and met Harper at the Bible class.

"He seemed to know the Bible," Porteous said. "He knew the Scriptures to quote, and he seemed to know the subject we were talking about, Matthew 13, so I would never imagine he was part of that group."

One of the group's favorite haunts was Tres Hombres, one of three Mexican restaurants in town.

Darby Howard, the 48-year-old owner, said the convicts often came in for lunch and dinner and sometimes stayed through the afternoon to drink and shoot pool.

"They were always quiet and never started any trouble or drew attention to themselves," he said. "All we remember is that they drank Shiner beer."

He never suspected they were the fugitives who had been in the newspapers and on television for more than a month.

After they were arrested, he said, the first thought that crossed his mind was, "I think I just missed out on the Texas lottery (a reference to the $ 500,000 reward)."

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