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US jury convicts inmate of killing couple

October 8, 2013

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) — The leader of a self-styled Bonnie and Clyde couple who staged a brazen prison escape and a three-week crime spree was convicted Monday of capital murder in the killings of a retired Oklahoma couple who crossed their path on an eastern New Mexico highway.

John McCluskey was found guilty of murder, carjacking and other charges in the August 2010 deaths of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Oklahoma, who were making their annual summer trek to Colorado.

McCluskey, 48, could be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.

Linda Rook, the younger sister of Gary Haas, welcomed the verdict, while her mother Vivian Haas was more guarded.

“I think she is still hopeful for the final decision,” Rook said, referring to the sentencing hearing.

The defense team declined comment about the outcome of the case. So did prosecutors, noting that the trial still is ongoing as jurors have to return for the trial’s sentencing phase.

McCluskey was serving 15 years for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm when he and two other prisoners escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Arizona, in July 2010 with the help of his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch.

One of the inmates was quickly captured after a shootout with authorities in Colorado, while McCluskey, Welch and inmate Tracy Province headed to New Mexico, where the carjacking of the Haases sparked a nationwide manhunt and an Interpol alert.

Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year to charges of carjacking resulting in death, conspiracy, the use of a firearm during a violent crime and other charges.

They both fingered McCluskey as the triggerman.

Province went his own way following the killings and was caught in Wyoming seven days later. But Welch and McCluskey remained on the lam, drawing comparisons to the legendary 1930s outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde.

The Haas family has seen three years of tragedy. Gary Haas’s mother, 83-year-old Vivian Haas, lost her home in the Joplin, Missouri., tornado a year later. And her granddaughter, Gary and Linda’s daughter, was found shot to death this year. Her husband has been charged with murder.

Vivian Haas was at the McCluskey trial every day along other relatives intent on seeing justice served.

The victims, who were high school sweethearts and recent retirees from General Motors, were making their 11th summer trip to Colorado when they were killed three days after the prison break that Welch testified was funded by a drug smuggling ring she and McCluskey ran for prison inmates.

Welch acknowledged throwing cutting tools onto the prison grounds. McCluskey, Province and Daniel Renwick used the tools to break through a perimeter fence and flee into the desert. Welch also supplied the men with guns and money, and Renwick with a getaway vehicle.

While Renwick went his own way, the other three were accused of kidnapping a pair of truck drivers and commandeering their rig until they reached McCluskey’s ex-wife and persuaded her to give them a ride to a getaway car at McCluskey’s mother’s house.

Three days later, tired and hot from driving a small car 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers)with no air conditioning, they set out to find a better vehicle. Testimony showed they spotted the Haases at an eastern New Mexico highway rest stop. Within an hour, the Haases were dead. Their charred remains were found among the wreckage of their burned-out travel trailer on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.

The defense called no witnesses and sought to save McCluskey from a possible death penalty by casting doubt that the killings were premeditated. They also tried to undermine the testimony of Welch and Province, saying they reached plea agreements to testify against McCluskey to save themselves from possible execution.

Prosecutors contended McCluskey intended to kill the Haases from the moment he spotted them.

“He wanted that vehicle, he wanted to stay on the run. And the only way he could do that was to ultimately eliminate the Haases,” prosecutor Mike Warbel said.

When he and Welch were finally captured at an Arizona camping ground, McCluskey was wearing Gary Haas’s John Deere cap.

“I just have to ask you guys: Who wears a dead man’s hat?” prosecutor Greg Fouratt said to the jury. “Is this some kind of trophy? Is this like a keepsake or a memento? And doesn’t that help you decide, as between the three of these people, who was the one who ended Gary Haas’ life?”