The Daring Escape of the
Immediately after receiving the tip about the Texas 7 from Wade Holder, Deputy Nicholas Pinell called his superior, Sergeant Bud Bright, at home. It was Bright's day off, but he took the call. Astounded at what Pinell had told him, Bright called Sheriff Frank Fehn and the three of them agreed to meet in an hour. Fehn, 72, a retired detective from New York who had investigated 385 homicides, was anxious to get the operation underway.
Fehn called the U.S. Marshals office in Denver, which in turn contacted the Texas 7 command post in Huntsville, Texas, set up in a facility near the state's execution chamber some 1057 or so miles south of Woodland Park, Colorado. At approximately 10 p.m., a dark, overcast night caused by cloud cover that would likely bring more snow to the area overnight, Fehn and Bright took an unmarked car and drove to within 50 yards of the recreational vehicle that they believed was being used by the Texas 7 to scope out the situation from a law enforcement standpoint. The setting seemed almost ideal for the escaped convicts, or any other criminal on the run from the law. Fehn's first concern was how they were going to approach the situation from a strategic perspective and not get anyone hurt or killed in the process. There was going to be substantial risk to life and property, and he knew it.
Meanwhile, Ron Knight, 51,the violent crimes supervisor for the FBI in Denver, had gone to bed after being briefed on the situation and that Sheriff Fehn, with help from FBI field agents, were working on attempting to eliminate the men inside the RV as suspects. One of Knight's agents woke him up three hours later and informed him that because of the potential danger to civilians, as well as to law enforcement officers, it would not be tactically feasible to attempt to flush out the suspects in the present setting. There were far too many motor homes with people inside them in close proximity to the suspected RV to risk such an action. As a result, it would not be possible to eliminate, or confirm, that the men inside the Pace Arrow were the men that they were looking for. The investigators had also learned that the men drove two other vehicles in and out of the RV park. One was a brown Ford van, and the other a silver Jeep Cherokee.
Knight didn't waste any time. He got dressed, grabbed the file on the Texas 7 that he had, fortunately, taken home with him for the weekend, and left his Littleton, Colorado home and began the hour and a half drive to the Teller County Sheriff's Department.
When Knight arrived at about 4 a.m., a total of seven officers from the U.S. Marshal's office, FBI, Teller County Sheriff's Department, and neighboring El Paso County Sheriff's Department filled Sheriff Fehn's small, unassuming office to begin making plans on how they were going to deal with the seven men in the RV. Due to Knight's background as an Army Ranger in Vietnam and the fact that he had led SWAT team operations during standoffs with David Koresh and his Branch Davidian religious followers at Waco, the Freemen in Montana, and at the Ruby Ridge homestead of Randy and Vicki Weaver in Idaho, which resulted in the deaths of Vicki and their son, Sammy, the group selected Knight as the person in charge of this operation.
It was decided that all radio communications involving the operation would be cut off. The investigators were aware of the police scanners that the inmates had stolen during their robbery of the Radio Shack in Pearland, and did not want to take any chances that the seven were listening in.
Next on their agenda was to develop a plan in which they could move the SWAT teams into the RV park without being noticed. Sheriff Fehn told the group that he owned an RV, and offered its use. He volunteered to pose as a tourist, change the license plate to an out-of-state plate, and drive the teams in. When the group agreed to the plan, 10 SWAT team members from the FBI practiced the planned mobilization, particularly getting in and out of Fehn's RV quickly while carrying automatic assault rifles and wearing body armor. They appropriately code named Fehn's RV, "The Trojan Horse."
Shortly after dawn, before the assault teams were ready to move into place, Knight's cellular phone rang. One of his agents informed him that the brown Ford van was gone from where it had been observed parked earlier. One or more of the men had driven it out of the park before the SWAT teams could secure the park's perimeter. The operation had suddenly become more difficult, and potentially more dangerous. Instead of keeping the park's perimeter secure, they had to worry about when the van, carrying an undetermined number of people, might return and catch the cops as they moved into their positions.
Police sharp shooters, perhaps best described as snipers, took their positions at the top of the hill, above the RV where they believed the Texas 7 were hiding out. Just when everyone thought that matters couldn't get any worse, they did. Three men came out of the RV and hopped into the silver Jeep Cherokee parked nearby. Fehn, several hundred feet down the hill, had been notified of the suspects' movement and climbed quickly back inside his own RV to await their arrival. However, instead of stopping at the office, they drove right by everyone, out of the park, and turned west onto U.S. Highway 24.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Department's SWAT team, which had volunteered to conduct an assault on a moving vehicle if necessary, was ready. They followed several blocks behind the silver Cherokee in a black van and a white Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle. To everyone's horror the Cherokee, soon after entering Woodland Park, turned into the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store, the site where the authorities had set up the communications outpost for their operation! They only hoped that the suspects didn't go anywhere near the rear of the store where the outpost, which consisted of a clearly marked El Paso County Sheriff's Department van and other marked vehicles, was partially hidden from view. No one had planned for this contingency, and everyone prayed that the men in the Cherokee didn't spot that arm of the operation. If they did, the situation could turn deadly very quickly, particularly with all of the women, children, and others that steadily came and went from the store and from the adjacent Burger King.
El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson watched the Cherokee and its occupants from a safe distance. The driver got out and went into the store and the other two men remained inside the vehicle. Anderson repeatedly tried to reach his colleagues on his cellular phone, but he couldn't get a signal to place the call. Dressed in civilian clothes, Anderson got out of his vehicle and walked into the parking lot to attempt to get a closer look. As he did so, the driver came out of the store and got back inside the Cherokee and drove away.
One of the SWAT team members finally got his phone to work, and he relayed the message that the Cherokee was traveling on U.S. Highway 24 again, this time heading east. The message was relayed to El Paso County Sheriff's Department SWAT team commander Terry Maketa, who in turn relayed it to Lt. Ken Moore, who began looking for the silver Cherokee farther down the highway. Thankful that the Cherokee had left the site of the busy store, the vehicle assault team continued their pursuit from a safe distance. Anderson was two cars behind the Cherokee, as were the SWAT team vehicles, when it turned into the Western convenience store and gas station and parked next to a gas pump.
In a somewhat spur-of-the-moment but fully coordinated effort, Maketa pulled his car in front of the Cherokee to block it from moving forward, and the van carrying the vehicle assault SWAT team members pulled in behind the Cherokee. Six SWAT team members jumped out of the van and trained their automatic assault rifles on the three suspects, sending horrified customers screaming and running away from the scene.
"Get your hands in the air!" shouted one of the cops.
"Don't move!" shouted another. "Get your hands up!"
Without taking their eyes off of the three men for even a second, the SWAT team advanced toward the Cherokee, their guns pointed and ready to shoot in an instant if any one of the three suspects made a move that the police perceived as threatening. One of the cops pulled the driver out of the Cherokee first and threw him onto the pavement, while another searched the fanny pack he was wearing. Not surprisingly, the fanny pack contained a handgun. The lawmen immediately recognized the driver as Joseph Garcia.
Michael Rodriguez was in the back seat, also wearing a fanny pack. When the cops pulled him out of the Cherokee, a handgun fell out and landed on the pavement with several frightening clanks in the process. One of the SWAT team members kicked it out of the way while another one frisked Rodriguez, finding another handgun in his fanny pack in the process.
George Rivas, the group's ringleader, was the passenger in the front seat. As he got out of the vehicle, one of the cops continuously yelled at him to keep his hands where they could see them. Rivas stopped and glared at the police officers, and at one point his fingers began to twitch, as if he might have been considering making a break for it. For all the cops knew, he might have been planning to reach for yet another gun that they hadn't seen yet. For several moments it was tense for everyone concerned as they waited to see whether Rivas was going to go peacefully or if he was going to opt for a deadly shootout. Finally, after realizing that there was no possible chance of escaping with his life, Rivas relented. After being forced to remove their shirts, each was handcuffed and placed inside separate patrol cars and driven to the Teller County Jail.