An alert Forest Ranger and surveillance of campgrounds paid off late Thursday when a SWAT team captured two murder suspects with local ties, narrowly averting a gun battle at a remote camping spot near the Sunrise Park Resort in the White Mountains.
Investigators did aerial surveillance over Payson’s campgrounds on Tuesday, searching for two fugitives on the run for the last three weeks.
Police took John McCluskey, 45, and Casslyn Welch, 44, who are cousins and engaged, into custody about 7:15 p.m. at the Gabaldon Campground, in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Police said Welch had a gun but didn’t use it, and McCluskey said he would have shot officers if he had a chance to grab his gun in the pup tent next to him.
Welch, who worked at the Jakes Corner Store, three weeks ago allegedly helped McCluskey and two convicted murderers escape from a privately run prison in Kingman, apparently by simply tossing wire cutters over a fence. Police have connected both McCluskey and Welch to the murder of a couple in New Mexico while on the run. They also arrested McCluskey’s mother, who runs the Jakes Corner Store.
Tom Henman, public information officer with the U.S. Marshals Service, said a U.S. Forest Service ranger making his rounds through the campground noticed an unattended campfire and a silver vehicle tucked strangely under some trees.
The ranger “made contact with them and immediately got a feeling of uneasiness because McCluskey walked behind a tree and sat down,” Henman said.
McCluskey also had sunglasses on in the shady area and had pulled a baseball cap down to block his face. Since McCluskey appeared uncooperative, the ranger talked with Welch and told the pair they were in an unauthorized camping area.
Before he left, the ranger jotted down the vehicle’s New Mexico license plate number. A later call revealed the plate was stolen.
“That is when the wheels started going,” Henman said.
Authorities were alerted, an Apache County SWAT team arrived and watched the couple for some time before making their arrests. McCluskey and Welch are being held in the Apache County Jail in St. Johns.
The silver Nissan Sentra found at the site is believed to be the original vehicle Welch drove to a Kingman prison on July 30 to assist McCluskey and two fugitives in a breakout.
Authorities say Welch tossed wire cutters to McCluskey, who escaped the prison with inmates Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick. Police later captured Province and Renwick, but Welch and McCluskey remained on the run, fancying themselves a modern-day “Bonnie and Clyde.”
The case has spurred a debate about Arizona’s reliance on private prisons to house even dangerous inmates in a cost-cutting measure. Investigators have said that security at the Kingman prison was lax, with doors propped open, frequently-sounding alarms disabled and shift changes that left the perimeter fence unwatched for 15 minutes at a time.
Police say McCluskey stole the plate found on the Sentra from New Mexico around Aug. 4, the same time police found the bodies of Gary and Linda Haas burned in an RV near Santa Rosa, N.M., said U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales.
The fugitives are considered suspects in the couple’s murder, authorities said.
Henman said it is unclear how long Welch and McCluskey have been in Arizona. The pair was last seen in Wyoming weeks earlier.
“The trail had gone cold,” Gonzales said.
Around the country, officers searched feverously for the pair. In Payson, investigators used aerial surveillance to search several campgrounds Tuesday.
“We were focusing on many areas,” Henman said. “Did we have specific information that they had returned to Arizona? No we didn’t.”
On Aug. 7, officers arrested Jakes Corner Store owner Claudia Washburn, 68, on charges of conspiracy to facilitate escape and hindering prosecution.
Authorities allege Washburn helped her son McCluskey and Welch, who worked at the store, escape officers’ detection.
Washburn is being held in a Gila County jail. Henman said Washburn has been “uncooperative” with the investigation.