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Thu, Oct. 17

State: Trial set for Kingman inmate on escape, other counts

FLAGSTAFF - One of three men who escaped from a state prison near Kingman, sparking a nationwide manhunt last year, is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday.

John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch, who allegedly helped the men flee the medium-security private prison, spent three weeks on the run, becoming two of America's most wanted fugitives.

Authorities say the two along with Tracy Province went on a crime spree that included the hijacking of two truck drivers in Arizona and the murder of a couple in New Mexico.

The 46-year-old McCluskey has pleaded not guilty to a single escape charge, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and misconduct involving weapons in Arizona. Welch, Province and the third inmate already have resolved their Arizona charges.

Welch acknowledged throwing cutting tools onto the prison grounds, allowing McCluskey, Province and Daniel Renwick to break through a perimeter fence last July. She also supplied them with guns, money and a get-away vehicle.

Renwick found the vehicle and took off in it. The others found themselves without transportation and were accused of kidnapping two truck drivers at gunpoint while they were doing a vehicle inspection. The drivers were released in Flagstaff.

According to court documents, the drivers' lives were spared after a vote was taken not to kill them. McCluskey was the dissenting vote.

Neither Welch nor Province are among the nine witnesses for the prosecution in McCluskey's weeklong trial. Any statements the two made implicating McCluskey also have been precluded. The defense has not indicated it would call any witnesses.

Prosecutor Victoria Stazio said although McCluskey faces more serious charges in New Mexico, the victims in the Arizona case cannot be forgotten.

"It is important for us to prosecute a case like this," she said. "It's something that's in the public interest to follow up on."

The escape cast a critical spotlight on Arizona's prison system. A report revealed a series of security breakdowns at the prison that included alarms that went off so often that prison personnel just ignored them. The prison warden and a security official also resigned.

Since then, Arizona officials said a new alarm system was installed, staff training and testing have increased and more state employees are monitoring the private prison staff.

The family of the Oklahoma couple that was killed also filed a lawsuit against the state and prison operator that points to the security flaws.

Federal prosecutors in New Mexico said McCluskey, Welch and Province targeted Gary and Linda Haas, of Tecumseh, Okla., at a rest stop for the couple's camping trailer. The Haases were taken to a remote ranch where they were shot.

The couple's family is planning to attend McCluskey's trial in Arizona. Gary Haas' mother, Vivian, has said she wants to look each of the defendants in the eye when they get their day in court.

McCluskey and Welch were the last of the group to be captured at an eastern Arizona campsite after an alert U.S. Forest Service employee spotted their beat-up Nissan backed suspiciously into the trees.

McCluskey had been serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm when he escaped. He previously did time in Pennsylvania related to a string of armed robberies in the 1990s.

Renwick, who was doing time for murder, was caught after a shootout in Colorado a day after fleeing. Province, also serving time for murder, was nabbed in a small Wyoming town after he was spotted at a church.

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