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Escapees Elude Texas Authorities

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: They've been dubbed the Malevolent Seven, at least by the foreign press, after pulling off an unusually well-organized escape from a medium-security prison in Kenedy. The group overpowered civilian workers in the Connally Unit's maintenance shop shortly after lunch on December 13th. They stole a guard's uniform and some civilian clothes before driving away in a state-owned truck, armed with about sixteen guns and decades of violent crimes between them.

Robert White, Senior Trooper and Spokesman, Texas Department of Public Safety: We know that two of them are already murderers, and another of them is a serial rapist, and another one beat a one-year old child for crying; so they have a record there that we need to be concerned about.

Sprague: Senior Trooper Robert White is a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is coordinating the search for the seven escaped inmates. Officers have received hundreds of phone calls from people who believe they have seen the escapees. But so far, Trooper White says none of those tips has produced a serious lead.

White: One thing that the investigators are having trouble with is the time delay. When they're calling, people are calling an hour or two late, even some a day late, saying, "I saw them yesterday."

Sprague: Investigators are also puzzled by what appears to be a very well-orchestrated post-prison break plan. Texas Department of Criminal Justice Spokesman Larry Todd says usually, escapees split up and are recaptured within hours. But this latest group has stayed together.

Larry Todd, Spokesman, Texas Department of Criminal Justice: And in hiding this long, it's clear that they had a plan and were organized and they have something in mind. We just don't know what it is. It could be that they just want to keep a low profile and never be seen again, or they could be doing something. But one generally doesn't steal a bunch of weapons without having something in mind.

Sprague: The group is suspected of taking police scanners and walkie-talkies from a Houston-area electronics store two days after they escaped. They've also been identified in the Christmas Eve robbery of a sporting goods store in Irving, from which 25 guns, winter clothes and money were stolen. Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins was fatally shot during the robbery, leading fellow officer David Tull to suspect the escapees may want to kill more police.

David Tull, Irving Police Department: I think as long as they're out running free like this, that they do pose a danger. I think particularly to law enforcement as well, we do consider them to be armed and dangerous. With the robbery situation, there was no harm to the employees themselves that were inside the building. However, they didn't hesitate to confront the police officer and shoot him dead.

Sprague: Officials believe the escapees are being led by 30 year old George Rivas, who was serving a 99 year sentence for kidnapping and robbery. He is described as someone fascinated by guns and with little remorse for his actions. But authorities also assume the group has avoided capture because it's being helped by friends from outside the prison. Again, prison spokesman Larry Todd.

Todd: Clearly they had outside assistance. They had vehicles that picked them up at a small strip shopping center in Kenedy, and we believe they're getting outside assistance like they did at that time.

Sprague: Todd says investigators are tense and frustrated, but trying not to scare the public as their search enters its fourth week. While authorities believe the seven are still together, in disguise, and somewhere in the Dallas area, Todd says investigators have no hard proof. They are enlisting help from a variety of federal agencies, the Mexican government and other states to find the escapees before anyone else is harmed. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.