GENTRY, Ark. (AP) — They fancy themselves a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who pulled off a brazen prison escape in Arizona and allegedly went on a bloody, multistate crime spree. They dyed their hair and stuck to out-of-the-way places to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch have become two of the most-wanted fugitives in America over the past two weeks as they traversed far-off towns across the West and eluded capture at every turn.
On Wednesday, the manhunt shifted from the wild, open lands of northern Montana near the Canadian border to a tiny town in the Arkansas Ozarks where McCluskey and Welch are suspected of robbing a beauty salon.
Investigators had thought they may have boxed in the escaped Arizona inmate and his fiancee — who is also his cousin — near Glacier National Park in recent days. Federal, state and local authorities began checking vehicles at the border and patrolling tiny towns near the park on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were notified as well.
But the leads that put the couple in Montana have been getting stale, with the last possible sighting on Sunday. Then a beauty store owner hundreds of miles away in Gentry, Ark., got robbed at gunpoint and tied up by two people matching the couple’s description.
The Benton County Sheriff’s Department said it is investigating the robbery, but U.S. Marshals haven’t positively identified the couple.
“We’re trying to use any means possible — surveillance cameras, anything possible to determine (their identifications),” said Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Gary Gray of the Western District of Arkansas.
The saga began on July 30 when McCluskey and two fellow inmates broke out of a medium-security prison in the Arizona desert. Authorities believe Welch, 44, threw wire-cutting tools over the fence that allowed the criminals to slice their way through a fence.
Two of the escaped inmates already have been caught, including one who captured after a shootout with law enforcement in Colorado and one who was spotted hanging out and singing hymns at a Wyoming church.
New Mexico authorities have linked the group to the deaths of an Oklahoma couple whose bodies were found in their charred camper in eastern the state a week ago.
McCluskey, 45, was doing 15 years for attempted murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm. He also served 14 years in Pennsylvania state prisons for a string of convenience store robberies in April 1992.
The mug shots of McCluskey and his lover have become a daily fixture in newscasts around the nation as authorities have found themselves spending a lot of time sifting through tips that turned out to be false, possibly delaying them from finding credible information.
“They’re continuing to come in, it’s a matter of prioritizing them. The problem with the sheer number is it may take a little while to get to a certain lead,” said Rod Ostermiller, Montana’s acting U.S. Marshal.
The Glacier County Sheriff’s Office, which has been helping the U.S. Marshal’s Service in the search, said Good Samaritans have been phoning in many tips that have proven to be dead ends.
“We’ve had multiple, I guess you could call them leads, that we’ve checked out in the area. In layman’s terms, none of those have panned out,” Glacier County Undersheriff Jeff Fauque said.
Then on Wednesday, federal officials thought they had a breakthrough: McCluskey and Welch may not be in Montana after all, but in Arkansas, where Welch’s mother lives.
Kut and Kurl salon owner Joyce Cook was alone in her salon in Gentry at about 10:45 a.m. when a couple entered and the young woman said she wanted a haircut.
Then the man pulled a gun, tied her up with rope and stole money.
“I just burst (out crying), before they even left, I was boo-hooing so hard,” said Cook, who in 35 years of running her business had never been robbed.
Cook was able to untie herself after the culprits left.
Fidencio Rivera, chief deputy U.S. marshal for the Arizona district, told The Associated Press on Wednesday the two apparently have changed their appearance.
“Welch has dyed her hair blond, McCluskey has dyed his hair black,” Rivera said.
The information was developed through interviews with people who last saw the couple, Rivera said.
Another prisoner who escaped with McCluskey, Daniel Renwick, was captured Aug. 1 after a shootout in western Colorado. Prosecutors charged Renwick, 36, in court on Wednesday with three counts of attempted first-degree murder, vehicular eluding and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.
The third fugitive, Tracy Province, appeared in a court in Cody, Wyo., on Tuesday and waived his right to fight extradition to Arizona. Province was caught Monday as he walked in sleepy Meeteetse, Wyo., steps from a church he had been visiting.
The Arizona attorney general’s office on Monday charged McCluskey’s mother and ex-wife with helping the inmates after they escaped.
Forensic evidence linked the escapees to the killings of an Oklahoma couple in New Mexico. New Mexico State Police spokesman Peter Olson declined to elaborate on Wednesday.
The badly burned skeletal remains of Linda and Gary Haas — both 61 and from Tecumseh, Okla. — were found in a charred camper last Wednesday on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.
Benton County sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Doug Gay said his agency received an alert a couple of weeks ago to watch for the escapees because Welch has relatives in the area.
Gentry is about 1,600 miles from St. Mary, Mont., where the couple may have been spotted Sunday, but Gay said the robbers didn’t appear to have a vehicle, Gay said.
“They were on foot as best as I could discern,” Gay said.
The Associated Press