ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A convicted murder who escaped from a New Mexico prisoner transport van and eluded authorities for nearly two days was captured Friday as investigators searched the state for the other inmate who had fled with him, the U.S Marshals Service said.
Joseph Cruz, 32, was taken into custody in Albuquerque after a brief foot chase, deputy federal marshal Ben Segotta said. The inmate managed to escape two nights earlier along a remote stretch of a southern New Mexico highway and get a several-hour head start on his run from law enforcement before authorities said guards reported he was missing.
Lionel Clah, a 29-year-old convicted of armed robbery and for shooting at a police officer in northern New Mexico, also escaped the van with Cruz and remained on the run.
Corrections officials haven't said whether they know exactly where or when the men managed to escape, but they said it was sometime after 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and along a roughly 200-mile route between correctional facilities in Roswell and Las Cruces that included a gas-station stop in a smaller desert town.
Authorities didn't realize the men were missing until 1 a.m. Thursday, Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said.
He and other state officials scrambled Friday to answer embarrassing questions about the missteps that could have been made that night, including how two felons bound by shackles somehow slipped away in white prison jumpsuits and vanished into the night with no one noticing, possibly for hours. The questions only helped to highlight concerns raised in recent months as the corrections department struggles with a budget crisis, a guard shortage, overworked employees and other problems.
Gregg Marcantel, the state corrections secretary, said the two unidentified guards in charge of transporting the prisoners were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the escape.
"Anything less would be remiss," he said as he left a news briefing.
Cruz is serving a life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction since 2007 for killing a man over drugs in Raton in northern New Mexico.
The U.S. Marshals Office offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of each of the men just hours before announcing Cruz was apprehended in a multi-agency investigation.
The U.S. Marshals Office offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of each of the men just hours before announcing Cruz was apprehended in a multi-agency investigation. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said he was taken into custody near University of New Mexico.
He wouldn't say whether investigators had determined how Cruz and Clah escaped the fortified prison van that was transporting them from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe to the southern region of the state.
After completing a headcount in Roswell, the two corrections officers pulled away from a state prison facility with five prisoners and all of their belongings in tow for the last leg of what had already been a long journey.
It wasn't long before they stopped in the next town to put gas in the van. They left the convenience store in Artesia, and turned off the main highway and crossed through nearly 200 miles of desert and a mountain range before arriving at their final destination in Las Cruces, where Cruz and Clah were reported missing.
By that time, the men were likely already en route to Albuquerque, where surveillance video showed both in a change of clothes at a hotel around 4:30 a.m. Thursday. That same hour state police first alerted the public that two convicts who should be considered armed and dangerous were on the loose.
Authorities raised the likelihood that the getaway happened at the Artesia gas station, was planned and that the fugitives received assistance from others. But they wouldn't disclose what surveillance video from that gas station may have revealed.
"We're definitely talking to family members, friends, associates, whatnot," Kassetas said.
While the authorities' search for the men had covered much of the state, U.S. Marshal Conrad Candelaria said that his agency was also focusing in on the northwest corner of New Mexico, where Clah — the inmate who remains missing — has ties and was accused of a shooting at an officer during a high-speed pursuit.
An undersheriff in San Juan County, near the Four Corners region of northwestern New Mexico, said his agency was advising the public to remain alert in the event Clah returned to the area.
"Everyone is very aware of what's going on," Undersheriff Shane Ferrari said. "We're still alert."