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Daring Death Row Escape Shakes up Texas

It was a Thanksgiving that will long be remembered by Texas prisoners and guards alike. The first escape of a Texas death row prisoner since Raymond Hamilton, a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang, busted out in 1934.

Shortly after midnight on November 27, 1998, seven men awaiting execution in Texas made a desperate dash for freedom from the Ellis Unit in Huntsville. Six were halted in their tracks after tower guards opened fire. Officials say none of the six were injured. They are Gustavo Garcia, Henry Dunn, James Clayton, Howard Guidry, Eric Cathey and Ponchai Wilkerson.

The seventh prisoner, Martin Gerule, braved the fusillade of gunfire and scrambled over two 10-foot perimeter fences topped with razor wire.

For seven days more than 500 law-enforcement officers, dog teams, and heat-seeking helicopters searched for Gerule, while the 1,700 Ellis Unit prisoners remained locked down 24 hours a day, all visitation and other out-of-cell activities canceled.

Prison officials say the seven men stuffed pillows and blankets in their beds ahead of time to make it appear they were still in their cells, then went to an outside recreation yard.

Prison spokesperson Larry Fitzgerald said it's believed they used a hacksaw blade to cut through a fence that separates the death row recreation yard from the general yard, then climbed onto a roof where they waited until after midnight. The prisoners used black felt pens to darken their white prison clothing, Fitzgerald said, making it harder for them to be spotted in the dark.

While law-enforcement officials were hunting for Gerule, Workers World interviewed death-row prisoner Nanon Williams, who was in a Houston jail for a hearing on his case. Williams talked about the men who tried to flee the Huntsville prison.

"They were trying to escape the grip of oppression," he said. "Not only are we living day by day under sentence of death, but there's the harsh conditions, the physical and mental torture.... And you want to survive. You want to live.

"Hitting the fence and getting away is gaining your physical freedom. Or hitting the fence and getting shot down brings you freedom from the system through death.

"We live with a lot of mixed emotions on death row. We live in a desperate situation. Can anyone blame a man for wanting to escape a system that wants to kill him."

The state of Texas executed 34 in 1997, another 17 in 1998 up to the Thanksgiving escape. Six others were scheduled to die in early December.

Just hours short of seven days after Gerule disappeared, two off duty prison employees were fishing in the Trinity River, about a mile from the Ellis Unit. They spotted Gerule's half-submerged body, secured it to their boat, and dialed 911 on a cell phone. That call ended the massive 7-day manhunt.

The Harris County Medical Examiner's office determined the cause of death as drowning, and estimated that the body had been submerged for seven days, meaning that Gerule died within hours of his daring escape.

The autopsy report noted that Gerule suffered a "superficial" gunshot wound to the back and that he was wearing several layers of clothing, plus magazines bandaged to his arms with elastic. He also had cardboard wrapped around his torso with a bandage.

"That probably led to the sinking of the body," the preliminary autopsy report concluded.

Shortly after the autopsy report was released, prison spokesperson Fitzgerald ceremoniously tore up a "wanted" poster of Gerule for a press gathering.

"It's through, it's all over, Gerule is no more," he said. "We have all our people in custody."

It's not over, though. Texas Governor and Presidential hopeful George W. Bush demanded to know how guards could have allowed the seven to sneak onto a rooftop unnoticed and how Gerule was able to flee the prison's security perimeter. Bush ordered the Texas Rangers to conduct a thorough investigation.

On January 21, 1999, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice issued its report on the escape. The Board concluded the escape had occurred due to employee incompetence and negligence. Ellis I warden Bruce Thaler was demoted, the prison's two deputy wardens, Charles Williams and Casey Staples, were reassigned to other prisons and three guards, who were not identified by name, were disciplined, ranging from probation to firing.

The report said that a tower guard lost time responding to the escape because he was smoking a cigarette (Texas bans all tobacco products on state property) and went into the tower to flush the cigarette down the toilet before picking up his rifle to open fire on the escapees.

Contrary to initial statements by prison officials, the report said the six prisoners who surrendered had climbed one fence already. Investigators were unable to determine where the escapees had obtained a hacksaw blade used to cut through a fence.

The report said understaffing in Ellis Unit and guards counting stuffed dummies in the escapees' beds rather than insisting on seeing live flesh, had contributed to the escape. Unidentified guards were also blamed for failing to supervise the death row prisoners at work, in the recreation yard and improperly closing cell doors. Texas Department of Criminal Justice director Wayne Scott said measures were being taken to ensure future escapes did not occur. This included housing death row in a newer prison, installing sensors on rooftops and additional guard towers in the recreation yards.

All of the escapees worked in a death row labor program where condemned prisoners toil for no pay in a garment factory until they are killed. Investigators said the program allowed the escapees to conspire for a prolonged period of time. The work program was suspended after the escape and may or may not be reinstated.

Workers World , Associated Press

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