Butch & Sundance They Ain't

Don Imus, in an image from video, on the set of his nationally syndicated talk show, Tuesday, April 10, 2007. Time Magazine once named the cantankerous broadcaster as one of the 25 Most Influential People in America, and he was a member of the National Broadcaster Hall of Fame.
For all its notoriety, the saga of the Texas Seven may have a limited shelf life.

True, the threads of this story have been breathtaking. Just start with how seven heavily armed convicts bluffed their way out of the state prison in Kenedy, Tex., southeast of San Antonio, in the first place. And, as the 42-day manhunt for the escapees dragged on, experts and reporters alike noted how long these fugitives were still beating and breaking the law - as well as staying together as a group - compared to your typical prison break.

In time, media comparisons of the Seven with an earlier pair of criminals with Texas roots - the bank-robbing Bonnie and Clyde of the Depression years - began to emerge. But Dan Buck, an independent scholar who's written extensively on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, told that the Seven - for all their misdeeds and headlines - fail to fit into historical pantheon of outlaws that resonates in American culture to this day.

"One big difference here is the seven in Texas were truly 'bad guys' - rapists and murderers. Whereas in most of the Old West, the famous Old West desperados tended to be bank and train robbers - not that some of them didn't kill people along the way," such as Jesse James and his gang, Buck said.

Also, the context of the times in which crimes happen can influence whether they become legendary or long-forgotten for future generations. Consider some of the "stars" of the Old West, which falls between the Civil War and America's initial rise as a global power. Butch and Sundance's exploits took place during struggles between small and large ranches in the region. Billy the Kid's heyday occurred amid the broader political milieu of territorial New Mexico.

Fast forward to the 1930's. The nation was trapped in the depths of the Great Depression. People were without jobs, food, or shelter. For businesses and farmers, bankruptcies and foreclosures were the order of the day. Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and their criminal contemporaries of that time may not have yielded motion picture material had they appeared on the scene at another point in history.

Indeed, the well of mainstream outlaw romanticism runs dry after the Depression. Since then, only "latter-day oddballs" - as Buck put it - seem to stay in the long-term consciousness.

For example, "D.B. Cooper became a folk hero because he disappeared," Buck said, referring to the 1970's skyjacker who jumped out of a Northwest plane with $200,000 and two parachutes, never to be seen since.

Clearly, the last two of the Texas Seven aimed for something big before they surrendered to authorities in Colorado. Yet rather than go out in a blaze of gunfire glory, this duo sought to justify their actions, painting them in a phone interview as a protest of the Lone Star State's prison system.

"We had a statement to make that the system is as corrupt as we are. You going o do something about us, well, do something about that system, too," Donald Newbury told Eric Singer of CBS affiliate KKTV in Colorado Springs. Prior to the escape, Newbury was in prison on a 99-year sentence for robbing a woman at a hotel with a sawed-off shotgun.

Fellow fugitive Patrick Murphy, Jr. - who had been serving 50 years for aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon - told Singer he was up for parole at the time of the prison break.

"What forced me to do this was the penal institution and such," Murphy said. "The way Texas has set things up ... I'd eventually become an outlaw again anyway because of parole violations and such."

Regardless of whether the escapees' grievances have any merit, Dan Buck believes the fugitives' 15 minutes of notoreity are essentially over, pointing out the country really never knew them beyond their extensive rap sheets.

"If you crack open any crime encyclopedia, there are thousands of these people throughout American history - and there's only probably about 50 or so who landed in legend," he said.

"They had their brief fling and they'll be in the papers through their trial and their numerous appeals ... and then they'll vanish," Buck added.

But before they do, don't be surprised if a movie or book deal somehow enters the equation in this infotainment age.