It may be the biggest manhunt since the days of the desperados the search for seven Texas convicts who plotted their way out of prison.
The band of murderers, rapists and robbers has been free for nearly a month. They are still out there somewhere, armed to the teeth and flush with cash. They have already killed the only lawman who got close to them.
For years, the Texas prison system has billed itself as not just the biggest, but the best in the country.
So how did it lose track of so many inmates? A former guard says he's amazed it didn't happen sooner. For 60 Minutes II, Dan Rather provides a look at what went wrong in Texas and the desperate hunt for seven dangerous men, still on the lam, with nothing to lose.
By the time the bloodhounds, horses and police got to Connally State Prison on Dec. 13, it was all over. Texas, which boasts the country's best record for rounding up escapees, had been humbled by seven convicts who plotted their way out of prison. Weary lawmen could do little more than look up the road.
Investigators still don't know where the escapees are but every police officer in Texas is on the lookout.
"(They know) what's waiting for them when they go back. And I'd have to say the needle is waiting for them," says Mike Landry, who is with the Gulf Coast Violent Offender Task Force. His job is to track violent fugitives.
"So they have nothing to lose. It's going to be their decision whether there's a big violent confrontation," Landry adds.
Police and prison officials describe the escapees as the worst of the worst: Two are convicted murderers. Two others committed brutal rapes. One is an armed robber. Another beat a baby nearly to death.
The ringleader, George Rivas, is an accomplished robber and con man serving 18 life sentences.
When former El Paso prosecutor John Williams, who helped put Rivas behind bars, saw his name on the list, he was shocked "that he would be in a position to break out."
"But the case was memorable to me because he was really a very sharp criminal
not the kind that you encounter too often," Williams adds.
Rivas is remembered as a master planner, arrested after an elaborate toy store robbery turned into a standoff with police. Dozens of high-powered weapons were stockpiled in his home. When he received his long sentence, police thought they would never see Rivas again.
"I was flabbergasted that he wasn't put in a more secure setting," Williams says.
Connally was supposed to be a maximum security prison. So how were the men able to not only break out, but in the process get into the arsenal of the prison and drive out of the prison undetected?
Johnny Vasquez, who until a few months ago worked there, says, "I felt for the correctional staff because I used to be the supervisor of those individuals that happened to be there that day."
"Of the totaseven offenders, six of them were assigned to the unit's maintenance department," Vasquez says. "The maintenance department is probably the most sensitive department, and the inmate work crews that are assigned there are the most sensitive work crews throughout the facility. They have access to the floor plans of the entire facility; they are aware of the ventilation, plumbing, gas system."
"It's not something that's unique to just the Connally unit," Vasquez says. "That is something that is evident system-wide."
The prison system plans a full report on what happened later this week. But an internal memo not meant for the public offers a sneak preview.
In it, investigators say the elaborate escape plan began when guards left for lunch, leaving the inmates to enjoy a picnic of sorts.
"There's been occasions when the maintenance supervisors have actually brought a barbecue pit in, parked it behind the area there and actually barbecued for these offenders," Vasquez says. "What happened with this picnic or spread is not unique to the Connally unit. That is something that occurs at every one of the system's units."
During the meal, the seven inmates overpowered the lone man a civilian who had been left to watch them. As the guards returned, one by one, they were taken hostage.
"Their clothes were taken from them, and two of the offenders went ahead and dressed in the employee civilian clothing," Vasquez says.
Those inmates talked their way into the tower where the guards' guns were kept, stole more than a dozen .357 Magnum handguns, then loaded their loot into a prison truck and brazenly drove out the back gate.
Those inside the prison finally discovered that the men were gone in a vehicle, yet they instituted a search around the 5-mile perimeter of the prison.
"That was a waste of time," Vasquez says. "The only resources the unit warden had was horses and dogs, and that's why a perimeter search was done."
A flawed system wasn't the only help the inmates had: Investigators believe the escapees had accomplices on the outside. They say an ATM surveillance tape shows the inmates in a nearby town, getting in cars and driving away.
Two days later, they robbed a Radio Shack, taking walkie-talkies and police scanners. Then they disappeared until Christmas Eve.
Hundreds of miles away near Dallas, a law enforcement nightmare unfolded. Police were called to Oshman's, a huge sporting goods store where seven men had burst in, brandishing guns and demanding money.
The robbers got close to 40 guns and as much as $70,000. On the way out, they were met by Aubrey Hawkins, the first police officer on the scene. He was shot repeatedly, run over with his own patrol car and left to die.
"The police had told me some things. I had no idea the extent of the brutality," says Jayne Hawkins, the moher of the murdered police officer.
She says her greatest anger is directed at prison officials, for not preventing the escape in the first place: "With each report that comes out, I am more astounded."
She says she'll honor her son's memory by working to make the state prison system more secure.
"I've not heard from anyone. I've not heard from one official," Hawkins observes.
"Of course, a mother losing a son is a terrible, terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to her, and our prayers are with her," says Mac Stringfellow, the chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, who blames the guards.
"We do have policies and procedures in place to prevent this sort of thing," he adds. "If these policies and procedures are followed, then escapes cannot happen."
The pending report into the escapes is expected to fault those policies. But some question whether it will be an honest assessment.
"I don't believe that any report that they're going to come out with is going to be the absolute truth and nothing but the truth. It has to be a certain version of their own," Vasquez says. "It has to be cleansed because this is a dirty matter, so to speak."
Police in Texas are now on a massive manhunt. FBI agents are taking phone tips. Foot patrols are handing out posters, and jittery officers are treating each reported sighting like the real thing.
Some officials say gang members may start squabbling among themselves.
"When they start fracturing, that's when things are going to get real violent for them and for us
and the citizens," says Landry. "And we would like to catch them before that happens."
Landry, along with Steve Tiller and Jim Duffin, has been with the task force from the beginning. The task force motto is: Let no wanted man go free. Their work is based on partnership. They disagree on how the situation will end, though.
"The possibility is 50 - 50," Tiller says of the chances of it all ending in a shootout. "I think anything could happen," Tiller says.
But Duffin says, "I don't think anyone with any sense would want a confrontation with these men. I'm afraid that at some point in time, that's going to happen. It's just inevitable."
"A confrontation with law enforcement is a very, very great possibility," Landry says. "If we get the right clue, we can avoid that confrontation, and we can take those boys alive."
The brutal murder of Officer Hawkins made catching these convicts a matter of life and death for police, the prison system and the public.
But no one knows what is at stake as much as Jayne Hawkins does. She fears she won't be the last mother to bury a child before this is over.
"There's going to be more bloodshed
and for someone else to get hurt in this is just very difficult," Hawkins. "I don't want to be discounted as a grieving mother, whch I am
and rightfully so."
"But I am also an outraged citizen and I don't want this to happen to anyone else. And it's going to. Perhaps it will, even in the capture of these people
because they don't have anything to lose," she adds.
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