Lover testifies in Arizona fugitive's murder trial

AP News
Posted: Sep 16, 2013 8:55 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An interstate run from the law turned into a "huge catastrophe" when an Oklahoma couple were killed after being carjacked by two escaped Arizona inmates and their accomplice, according to testimony Monday from a key witness.

Prosecutors called accomplice Casslyn Welch, the cousin and girlfriend of John McCluskey, to the stand. McCluskey is being tried on federal carjacking and murder charges in the August 2010 shooting deaths of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. The Haases' bodies were found incinerated in their burned-out travel trailer on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.

Welch told jurors she heard gunshots ring out and turned around to see McCluskey stepping out of the Haases' trailer.

"He had a lot of blood on him — his pants, his shoes, his shirt," she said, breaking down into tears.

Prosecutors allege Welch, McCluskey and his former prison bunkmate Tracy Province targeted the Haases on Aug. 2, 2010, at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico state line. At gunpoint, the couple was forced to drive to a lonely road off of Interstate 40. Previous testimony has indicated that Welch and Province were outside the trailer when McCluskey allegedly shot the Haases.

When asked if she looked inside the trailer, Welch said: "Just couldn't do it."

She said she didn't need to, knowing the couple were shot at close range and with a high-caliber pistol.

The fugitives took the truck and trailer to a more desolate spot, unhitched the trailer and set it ablaze with the bodies inside.

Welch and Province have already pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the slayings and Arizona state charges for the escape. They face life in prison.

If convicted, McCluskey could be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.

Earlier Monday, Welch said it was her responsibility to provide guns, wire cutters and a getaway vehicle stocked with water, food, clothes and other supplies for the escape. She said she purchased camouflage clothing and scoped out the privately-run medium security prison near Kingman days before the prison break.

Welch said talk of escaping turned serious in May 2010. There were phone calls, letters and visits over the next two months in which McCluskey doled out instructions, sometimes using code in his conversations with Welch. In one recorded phone conversation played for jurors, he tells Welch she needs to do a better job of following instructions.

"If you don't, it's going to be a disaster," he said. "I don't think you understand the severity of it."

Welch answered: "Yes I do. I can get killed. You can get killed."

Prosecutor Greg Fouratt asked Welch whether she had thought about backing out as she — clad in camouflage from head to toe and carrying full-loaded firearms — approached the prison.

"I thought it a million and one times, but I knew I couldn't," she said.

Welch testified she has known McCluskey all of her life — their mothers are sisters — and they became romantically involved in 2007 while living in Arkansas. While the pair would refer to each other as husband and wife, they are not legally married.

Welch and McCluskey also spent time on the road together while she worked as a truck driver.

"We loved each other," she said.

Welch said she would visit McCluskey in prison every weekend, making the four-hour drive from her home. McCluskey was serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted the year before of attempted second-degree murder and other charges. He faced another 15 years in prison for violating parole in Pennsylvania in a separate case.

After a three-week manhunt, authorities captured McCluskey and Welch at a campground in Apache County, Ariz. Robert Watkins, a deputy who helped with the arrest, testified Monday that Welch shoved her hand into her waistband as he screamed at her to show him her hands.

"It appeared to me she was preparing for a gunfight," Watkins said.

With his gun aimed at her chest, he said Welch threw a revolver to the ground. He took her down and handcuffed her.

Prosecutors showed photographs of the campsite and of a shirtless, tattooed McCluskey, his hands behind his back as authorities held him.

Watkins testified that McCluskey said had he been able to reach his gun inside his tent, he would have tried to kill the deputies.

Welch told jurors McCluskey and Province had decided they weren't going back to prison and were ready for a showdown. Their photographs had been plastered all over television and family members were suggesting they turn themselves in. Morale was low, she said.

The trio's only thought, Welch said, was to "get off the grid" and go into hiding, but their plan disintegrated when the Haases were shot.