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In for the kill 

As their ringleader faces execution, the Texas Seven hand their story to a pair of locals

At 5 p.m. Mountain time on Wednesday, one of the most notorious outlaws ever to set foot in El Paso and Teller counties will get the needle.

In an institutional white concrete building known as the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Huntsville, Texas, George Rivas, 41, will pay the ultimate price for a life of crime that included kidnapping, robbery, burglary and, most notoriously, the shooting death of a police officer in Texas on Christmas Eve 2000.

He was the ringleader of the Texas Seven, who staged the biggest, most daring prison break in Texas history, killed that officer, then set up a base camp in a Woodland Park RV park and embarked on three weeks of massages, bar-hopping and Bible study.

When Rivas breathes his last next week, a crusty former CIA and FBI agent will be watching on the other side of the death chamber window. At Rivas' invitation, Charlie Hess of Colorado Springs will observe, all the while gathering material for a book he's writing about the gang.

Hess is collaborating with his wife, Patti, herself an author, and Fountain Police Chief Todd Evans, who led the El Paso County SWAT team's take-down of Rivas and three cohorts. They have an agent but not a publisher, though one has expressed interest, Hess says.

Through their research and interviews with Rivas and company, new details are emerging of the outlaws' exploits, their brushes with cops while on the lam, and how they view the future. Hess opened a dialogue with all five living members last spring, and all five wrote back. Some portions of the book will be drawn from those letters. Other portions come from two days of interviews last fall.

In that time, Hess and Evans spent seven hours with Rivas alone, during which Hess and Rivas formed enough of a bond that the prisoner asked Hess to witness his death.

"What I'm going to be thinking is, we had a nice chat," Hess says. "But I feel no sympathy for him. He killed a cop. I'll walk away without a tear in my eye."

The break

Rivas grew up in El Paso, Texas, raised by his grandparents. Although he finished high school and at one time thought about becoming a police officer, he fell in with a bad crowd and at 31, found himself serving a life sentence for 13 counts of aggravated kidnapping with a deadly weapon, four counts of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, and one count of burglary.

He liked to plan things. Sometimes, he'd case a target for days, he told Hess, and conjure up ruses for his robberies.

Rivas plotted the break from John B. Connally maximum security prison outside Kenedy, Texas, for a year. He brought in other prisoners such as Michael Rodriguez, serving a life sentence for murder, who promised to secure a getaway vehicle on the outside. When Rivas found out two other groups were planning an escape, he brought them into the fold.

Donald Newbury was serving 99 years for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon; Joseph Garcia, 50 years for stabbing a man 19 times in an argument over a woman; Patrick Murphy, 50 years for aggravated sexual assault; Randy Halprin, 30 years for killing his girlfriend's child; and Larry Harper, 50 years for rape.

On Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000, while working in the prison's maintenance building, they picked off staff, guards and other inmates — more than a dozen — one by one as they entered. They stripped them of their clothes — later to be used as disguises — bound them with tape, and locked them in an electrical room. After several hours, two of the gang made their way to a pickup truck within the prison compound. The others used the captives' IDs to make confusing phone calls to the guard towers as a distraction.

At one point, Rivas says he climbed a tower in his disguise, overtook one guard, and made off with an armload of guns (though this conflicts with prior reports that say Halprin went up the tower.)

"That's ballsy," Hess says, "and they were desperate."

They headed for a Wal-Mart store in Kenedy, where waiting for them in the parking lot was a white Chevy Suburban and $300 left by Rodriguez's father (who later went to prison for his role in the escape). They quickly pulled a robbery and used the money to buy clothes at a discount store, Hess and Evans say they were told.

They made stops in San Antonio and Houston, robbing stores along the way. At one RadioShack, they stole police scanners and walkie-talkies.

During a stop at a mall to eat and see a movie, four of the convicts headed for the food court and rounded the corner — where eight or 10 cops were seated at a table. "They walked right past the cops," Hess says Murphy told him. Murphy then headed for the john and soon found himself flanked on either side by cops, who were talking about the Seven. "They were saying, 'If those sons a bitches ever come here, we're going to fill them full of lead.'"

Murphy kept his cool, but told Hess, "I stood there for a long time and couldn't squeeze a drop."

The murder

In Irving, the gang cased Oshman's Sporting Goods for two days. "One guy would go in and look around and just get the lay of the land," Patti Hess says. "They went there one evening just to see how many people were there. [Rivas] was never in a hurry."

On Christmas Eve, Rivas was wearing a security guard's uniform from a secondhand store and carrying a fake photo of an alleged robber. "They got the manager to pull everyone up around the front counter. [Rivas] was saying there had been robberies in the area, and it was easier to herd them together to look at the photo lineup," Patti Hess says. "That was really smart."

Once gathered together, the employees were herded to a back room. The gang took 46 weapons, and roughly $70,000 from registers.

When they left through the back door, they were greeted by Officer Aubrey Hawkins, who'd left his family at a restaurant to answer the 6:29 p.m. call of suspicious activity at the store. He swung his squad car around to block their vehicle.

Rivas, still in his guard's uniform, didn't panic. Instead, he told Hawkins, "I'm cool," and asked, arms out, "Can I get my ID from my pocket?" When Hawkins gave approval, he reached around to his right rear pocket and pulled out a handgun instead. Pow, pow, pow, Evans says — Hawkins was dead.

The others freaked out and started shooting. Rivas was hit twice by his own gang, in the groin and the stomach, but both bullets went through him, and Newbury later stitched him up. Halprin was hit in the foot, but didn't get medical treatment until he was arrested in January. Rivas later described it to Evans as an episode straight out of Keystone Kops.

After that, they tore out for the state line. Rivas had seen the Rocky Mountains once and was enthralled by their beauty. They headed for Colorado.

In Colorado

Not long after Hawkins was buried, two Texas cops showed up in El Paso County searching for horse thieves, Evans recalls. But they were more interested in the Texas Seven. They met up with J.D. Ross from the Sheriff's Office and gave him copies of the bulletins on the escapees, with photos and criminal history.

"We had no idea we were going to be dealing with these guys two weeks later," Evans says.

Not that anyone would have recognized them from the prison mug shots. Evans says all of them had altered their appearance dramatically by growing facial hair and dyeing their hair.

"The best cop in the world never would have made them," Hess says.

Which explains how a cop who stopped at a Denver rave mistook Rivas and Garcia for undercover cops, sending them into a back room to check for drugs and not giving it a second thought when they slipped away.

Having purchased an RV from a Colorado Springs couple, the outlaws settled in at the Coachlight Motel & RV Park in Woodland Park. The convicts also bought several vehicles, including a Jeep Cherokee, from a used car lot in Colorado Springs.

Murphy and Newbury made runs to massage parlors, where Murphy spent $1,800 in seven days, telling Hess, "It was worth every cent."

Rivas, Garcia and Rodriguez went to Denver to buy fake IDs. When the dealer told them to come back in a couple hours, they ducked into a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant along Colfax Avenue. The waitress, the daughter of the owner, made eyes at Rivas, and he returned the gesture. After the lunch crowd thinned out, the owner came over to chat.

"She says she's looking for a cook," Hess says. "Rivas says he's a cook ... She offers him a job and says, 'Can you start tomorrow?' Rivas says he can't start tomorrow, that he has errands to run. If he would have stayed there, he would have just blended in."

It was a bad decision, just like the decision to wait until Tuesday, Jan. 23, to break up and go their separate ways.

The takedown

At 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21, Evans was watching TV with his wife and three kids in the basement of their Woodland Park home, less than a mile from the Texas Seven's hideout.

The phone rang. Teller County Sheriff Frank Fehn wanted assistance from the SWAT unit. Apparently a woman at the RV park had recognized one of her Bible study partners on America's Most Wanted, and told Wayne Holder, the park's owner, who called authorities.

The SWAT team assembled at the sheriff's office in downtown Colorado Springs, then headed up Highway 24 in five-minute intervals. They staged in Divide and awaited word from the FBI, which put the SWAT team in charge of the takedown. But it faced a big disadvantage: The RV sat high on a ridge, looking down on the park and the road.

They didn't know Murphy and Newbury had gone into Colorado Springs on Saturday and hadn't returned. Nor did they know that guns were propped at every window and door of the RV, and that their vehicles were full of weapons, too, although they could suspect as much.

Using several vehicles, including the "Love Shack," a rickety van no one would suspect as a law enforcement vehicle, the team rolled by the RV park and waited for them to come out. They went to radio silence. The other law enforcement vehicles were staged nearby.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Monday, Rivas, Garcia and Rodriguez climbed into the Jeep and drove across the road to Blockbuster to return videos, having watched movies like The Matrix and the Alien trilogy while holed up in their RV. Evans pulled the van in behind them, leaning back to conceal himself, dressed in full SWAT gear. Rivas seemed to eye the vehicle in his side mirror.

The Jeep then pulled away and turned onto Highway 24, headed east and into the Western Gas & Convenience Store. Before Rivas could put the vehicle in park, he was staring up the barrel of an AR-15 held by one of six SWAT members who had the vehicle surrounded, with Evans' van behind it and a sedan driven by Lt. Ken Moore blocking it from the front.

"The reason we got caught," Rivas recently told Hess and Evans, "is we got too comfortable. We wanted to go like martyrs instead of you guys sending us back to prison."

"Garcia told me," Hess says, "that after a while they sort of went, 'Whew,' and went about their business — not looking over their shoulder, not looking for cops."

After the three prisoners were captured, the team headed back to the RV park, where news helicopters circling overhead made it impossible for the team to hear if the two inside — Halprin and Harper — were firing at them. "We literally couldn't hear each others' radios," Evans says.

In a letter, Halprin told Hess that he'd made breakfast, and Harper was preparing to leave for Bible study.

"To be completely honest, Charlie," he wrote, "we had no clue something was afoot." But then the police scanners started chattering, indicating three had been arrested.

Halprin emerged, hands raised, saying, "Don't hurt me," Evans says. The SWAT team thought they heard a muffled gunshot, which later was determined to be the first of two fired by Harper into his own chest. Two days later, acting on a tip from a clerk at the Holiday Inn at Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road, Springs police surrounded the hotel and captured Murphy and Newbury.

Retelling the story

Since then, Evans has been in high demand among SWAT units across the country. He figures he's given 100 presentations about how to take down armed and dangerous felons in a vehicle.

Also, "two authors approached me and asked if I would help them" with a book, Evans says. "But they wanted to take liberties, and I wasn't comfortable with either of them."

When he got together with Hess, a longtime friend, for breakfast one day last spring, they hatched the idea of a book. Hess began writing the outlaws letters, telling them he planned to write a book and wanted it to be authentic, not just based on news accounts and police reports. So far, he's collected more than 100 pages of letters from them.

Rivas begins his letters saying, "Peace and grace be multiplied to you." He calls Hess "amigo" and "my friend."

Patti Hess says she's charged with organizing the material and sketching out chapters. She's written two crime novels for which she received Pikes Peak Writers contest awards, but true crime is a different cup of tea, she says. "You run it through your mind and the characters start telling you what they're doing," she says about fiction-writing. "But nonfiction, staying to the facts is a whole different ballgame."

Writing books isn't new for Hess. He co-authored with Davin Seay the 2008 release, Hello, Charlie, an account of serial killer Robert Browne's nearly 50 homicides, including the murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest in 1991. He corresponded and met with Browne for four years, documenting dozens of murders Brown says he committed from Arkansas to California. Hess has also penned two unpublished books.

Hess, his wife and Evans all want to dedicate the book to Hawkins and Hugh Martin, an El Paso County sheriff's SWAT member killed in the line of duty on April 13, 1992, during a narcotics raid.

Hess and Evans were given unusual access to the Texas Seven. Prisoners at Polunsky are typically limited to one two-hour visit per week, but Hess and Evans spent seven hours with Rivas and at least four each with Garcia and Murphy. Newbury didn't want to talk. Halprin also declined the interview. Both have written to Hess, however.

Hess says Rivas wept during the interview over Hawkins' death. Garcia, who delayed the getaway at Oshman's with his continued "shopping," also had tears in his eyes. But Murphy, whom Hess describes as "almost jocular," showed no regret, saying he didn't fire at Hawkins.

Evans says he's confident the convicts gave truthful accounts of their spree, because their stories matched and they've never been together since their capture. Wardens at Polunsky move them from cell to cell every two weeks to prevent another escape.

Rivas isn't the first of the gang to be put to death. Rodriguez was executed Aug. 14, 2008, at the age of 45, after calling off the appeals process. The others haven't been given execution dates yet, except for Newbury, who faced a Feb. 1 date that later was stayed, pending an appeal.

The mastermind seems ready to go. Rivas recently was planning to marry a woman in Canada by proxy and considered himself blessed. "I'm in God's hands, the best," he wrote to Hess in January.

And he takes responsibility for Hawkins' death, he told Hess and Evans in the November interview, just like he told a TV reporter during a Jan. 27, 2001, interview in Dallas. "No amount of apologies could make up for what I have done," he told WFAA-TV. "Except that I hope that by me now confessing to this and admitting to my guilt, I can give them some sort of closure when my life is taken."

Evans won't be attending. "They're animals," he says of the Seven. "There's no other way to put it. Their entire lives were based on being predators, finding situations where they could take advantage of people."

The execution will be Hess' second. The first, in California in the 1950s, was of a man who tried to kill Hess during his FBI days. "I didn't have any heartburn," says Hess, now 85.

After all, watching someone put to death is the only fitting end to the psychological journey of cozying up to a killer. "I've got to make myself feel that I can be Joe Natural, chat a little bit," he says. "When I walk in the door, I'm their friend. When I walk out, I want to see them in an electric chair."

zubeck@csindy.com

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