The Getaway

The first inmate to break out of death row in 64 years was a cold-blooded killer who exposed dangerous lapses in prison security. Yet there was something romantic about Martin Gurule’s escape—and disappointing about his inglorious death.

February 1999By Comments

THE LAST TIME ANYONE SAW MARTIN GURULE ALIVE, HE WAS running in the late November moonlight through the pine thickets surrounding Ellis Unit’s death row, having scaled first one, then a second chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire, and disappearing into the low-lying fog. Behind him, while shots rang out and spotlights skimmed the prison’s perimeter fences, a night-shift guard on H wing began a head count, hurriedly calling out names as he moved from cell to cell. “Gurule,” the guard called into the shadows of one cell, which remained still. “Gurule!” Reaching to nudge the sleeping figure, he found only a pile of rolled-up bedding and jerked the limp sheets through the bars in frustration.

Beyond prison walls, Gurule continued to tear through the woods, ducking branches and stumbling over tree roots, his body stiff with the cardboard and magazines he had fastened around himself with elastic bandages to blunt the effects of the razor wire. Intent on putting as much distance as he could between himself and the tracking dogs who bayed not far behind him, he fled with little regard to destination. A bullet had grazed his back, and the wound, raw and bleeding, stung as he moved through the cool air. He kept running until he reached a small incline where the underbrush thickened and the pines yielded to a scattering of cottonwoods and willows, beyond which lay a wide expanse of water. He had reached a river bottom, and with little choice as to his next move, he plunged into the frigid creek that spread out before him. If he realized his miscalculation, it was only for a moment; the water seeped into the layers of cardboard and magazines that clung to his body as well as the double layer of long johns he wore over them, their dead weight pulling him under the surface, beneath the dark green islands of lily pads that blanketed the creek, down twelve feet to its muddy bottom.

One week later, after more than five hundred lawmen had scoured the 11,672-acre Ellis Unit grounds for Gurule and come up empty-handed, Mark Humphrey, a 39-year-old who drives a truck for a nearby prison, went to Harmon Creek in search of catfish. After a few false starts with a balky outboard motor, he and fishing buddy Doug Smith puttered out to the middle of the creek, a lonely place with few reminders of civilization: From the south comes the occasional rumble of freight trains bound for Huntsville, and from the north, the wails of sirens, six times during the day, signaling a head count at Ellis. “It was fixing to get dark, and we started heading back toward the pier,” Humphrey said from beneath the brim of his camouflage-print hat, pulled down low against the wind, as he and I retraced his path. “Doug saw it first. All the years we’ve been running this river, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Cutting the engine, he eased up to a spot where the creek water stood still, the place where they had peered down into the water and seen two hands floating along the surface. “We used the gaff to lift up the head so we could see the face,” Humphrey recalled, “but we were pretty sure we already knew who it was.”

Their discovery ended one of the largest manhunts in Texas history, and if there was a twinge of disappointment among those who had followed Gurule’s escape, it was that a plot of such daring—carried out by a condemned man, no less, who had thumbed his nose at the vast Texas prison system and tried to cheat the executioner—had ended so predictably. “I hope he makes it,” Gurule’s high school sweetheart, still doing time herself, had told America’s Most Wanted, and she wasn’t the only person who had felt a certain admiration for him. A Time columnist confessed to having hoped Gurule got away: “I felt a little better,” he wrote, “when I found out a co-worker and several other friends were secretly rooting for him too.” Rumors had circulated that Gurule had floated down the Trinity River and was long gone to Mexico or that he was hiding out in a deer blind, living on nuts and berries, waiting to make his next move. Wanted posters featuring his mug shot were distributed along the border from Juárez to Matamoros. In Corpus Christi, Gurule’s hometown, police officers in an unmarked car staked out his grandmother’s house, and assistant district attorney Mark Skurka, who had prosecuted Gurule’s capital murder case, circulated photos of the fugitive around the courthouse in case he had retribution on his mind. Newsweek likened the Gurule sightings to those of Elvis, and the New York Times jokingly speculated that perhaps he had “slipped through a crease in the space-time continuum and disappeared into the eighth dimension.”

All the while, Gurule’s body was slowly twisting its way down Harmon Creek, floating toward the spot where the creek water stood still—a place that an army of dogs, men, and horses had overlooked. On making their discovery, Humphrey and Smith had tied a rope around the fugitive’s swollen wrist and dialed 911 on a cell phone, sitting in the fading twilight until lawmen came, their spotlights shining from a distance as their boats skimmed across the creek toward the dead man’s body. News that Gurule had been found quickly spread and the sounds of the manhunt—the far-off howling of the dogs, the droning of helicopters overhead—were replaced by a celebratory chorus of honking horns as sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, prison guards, and Texas Rangers headed home for a good night’s sleep. “I kept on thinking that if Doug and I had turned back any earlier, Gurule probably would have been fish food,” said Humphrey, “and those old boys would still be standing out there looking for their convict, thinking he was the one that got away.”

RINGED BY SEVEN PRISONS AND HOME TO AN EIGHTH, HUNTSVILLE is a place whose express purpose is confinement, its greatest threat those who dream of running. The urge to escape is an accepted fact of life here, as alluring to men behind bars now as it was when gunslinger John Wesley Hardin tried to break out of the Walls Unit, just two blocks east of the town square, more than a century ago, or when Fred Gomez Carrasco staged the longest prison siege in U.S. history at the Walls in 1974. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has been headquartered here since 1848, and the business it generates has become this town’s bread and butter; the dark side of the bargain is the constant reminder that danger lurks close by. Few of the nearly fifteen thousand men who are imprisoned in and around Huntsville actually try their hand at escape and even fewer succeed, but their longing to be somewhere—anywhere—other than here is as much a part of the texture of life as the gray-uniformed prison guards eating cheeseburgers at the Dairy Queen or the freshly turned graves at the Joe Byrd Cemetery, where inmates without families are buried beneath small white tombstones that bear inmate numbers instead of names. This is a place dedicated to the idea that crime does not pay but, as Gurule’s jailbreak proved, also a place where the romance of escape still has enormous appeal. For seven days and seven nights, Martin Gurule became a hero of sorts to all those behind bars here, a man who acted upon their collective dreams of running.

Nowhere is the struggle between those who must keep men behind prison walls and those who want to flee from them more vividly on display than Huntsville. TDCJ vans often mingle with afternoon traffic, their shackled passengers staring through the windows at the outside world; trusties on work details, who sweep prison grounds and till prison farms, often stop to gaze at that which lies just beyond their grasp. The chamber of commerce once used “Escape to Huntsville” as its tourism slogan before wisely scrapping it nearly a decade ago. Mock escapes are regularly staged at outlying units, and at the Wynne Unit, north of town, forty or so tracking hounds are kenneled below hand-painted signs bearing names such as “Hank” and “Hitman.” Inmates who volunteer to be “dog boys” are given up to six hours lead time to run through the woods to a predetermined site before the hounds catch up with them.

At the Texas Prison Museum, a musty gallery of jailhouse memorabilia on the town square, sit the crude tools that inmates have fashioned to aid their flight: handmade keys, lock-picking kits made out of melted-down silverware, shanks, Chinese throwing stars, monkey knots, shoe soles that conceal blades, and zip guns made out of metal pipes and screws—reminders that even in the most closed of systems, there is room for at least the imagination to roam. In an adjoining case are the tools that guards have used to thwart escapes for 150 years: Thick metal leg yokes, shackles, belly chains, horse hobbles, balls and chains, slap jacks, and a three-foot-long leather switch are all proudly displayed on a piece of red velveteen. On one wall hangs a framed photo of Black Betty, the bus that transported shackled inmates to and from Huntsville for decades, and her driver, Bud Russell, from whom only one man successfully fled. Behind a nearby glass window sits Old Sparky, the retired electric chair, its polished oak slabs laced with the thick leather straps from which there was no escape.

At the center of town is the Walls, Huntsville’s oldest prison, whose brick ramparts measure forty feet high and are fringed with razor wire, above which guard towers and floodlights brighten the night sky. It is Huntsville’s best-known landmark and a symbol for all that Huntsville believes itself to be: a place from which escape is practically impossible. But even the Walls, where the execution chamber is housed, inspires images of flight; for years Bustin’ Loose Menswear was located one block from the prison, and the recently closed Desperado Club still sits down the street. For inmates who have dreamt of life on the outside but have never run, the Walls is where they get their first taste of freedom; all TDCJ inmates who are scheduled to be released are first bused into Huntsville from prisons across the state, then given $50 and a one-way Greyhound ticket home. Dozens of men in prison-issue work clothes are released from the Walls every weekday, starting just before noon, some walking solemnly with their eyes fixed on the sidewalk, others high-fiving each other, letting out boisterous whoops and hollers. A few occasionally run along Twelfth Street, sprinting all the way up the hill that takes them away from the prison as if they must move as fast as humanly possible to prevent the redbrick walls from pulling them back inside.

Huntsville has seen its fair share of escapes over the years—some no more complicated than a trusty throwing down his hoe in the field and trying to outrun the dogs—and the community is sufficiently nervous that housepainters are thought to have the unluckiest job in town: Their white cotton jumpsuits have been mistaken more than once for prison-issue uniforms, the painters themselves for men on the run. In the early part of this century, prisoners who tried to escape were whipped mercilessly upon their recapture. Even so, there was no shortage of men willing to try. They stole keys from night watchmen, they hid in slop wagons headed for the hog farm, and on one occasion, they crawled out through a hole under the grandstand of the prison rodeo, kidnapping two Huntsville high school football stars and their dates in exchange for the boys’ shirts and a ride to Beaumont. In 1934 Bonnie and Clyde sidekick Raymond Hamilton and two other condemned men staged an escape from death row (then housed at the Walls), climbing up a fire ladder, dodging gunfire, and catapulting over the side to two waiting getaway cars. Hamilton, the last of the trio to remain at large, was recaptured nine months later. In the summer of 1974 came the bloody standoff with Fred Gomez Carrasco, the San Antonio drug lord who took sixteen people hostage in the prison library after a trusty smuggled pistols and a bandolier to him inside a can of peaches and a hollowed-out ham. Eleven days later, after negotiations failed, Carrasco and two inmates exchanged fire with lawmen in a shootout that claimed the lives of Carrasco, another inmate, and two women hostages.

It was an awful lesson for Huntsville—one that illustrated that despite all the appearances of security, there are no guarantees—but one that occurred 25 years ago, a time that many prison guards here are too young to remember. Night after night, year after year, guards had stared out into the darkness from their towers and scanned the corridors of their cellblocks, looking for an escape that never came, and if their vigilance had flagged, Martin Gurule had certainly made the most of it. For the TDCJ, his flight was deeply humiliating, and in the days that followed the breakout, prison officials stared helplessly into the woods, as if held captive themselves. “We have a perfect record with escapes, and we plan to keep it that way,” announced Texas Board of Criminal Justice chairman Allan Polunsky five days into the manhunt, standing grim-faced before a group of reporters while hounds bayed in the distance. “We will bring back this fugitive, dead or alive. It doesn’t make any difference, in my opinion, which that will be.”

THE MAN WHO WOULD BREAK OUT OF DEATH ROW and lead prison officials on one of the largest manhunts in Texas history was not, as one might have imagined him to be, someone whose only hope was a life of crime. A polite, even-tempered boy, Martin Gurule had at first seemed full of promise, taking several honors classes in junior high. He grew up in a modest frame house on Corpus Christi’s Hispanic west side, having been raised by his grandmother since he was an infant. His mother died of an aneurysm when he was one year old, and his father was stationed elsewhere in the Army. But by the time Gurule entered W. B. Ray High School, he had grown restless with the limitations that an ordinary life presented, and after committing a few petty crimes with mixed results, he robbed a neighborhood bank at the age of sixteen. Walking into the bank at lunchtime, he presented a teller with a handwritten note. “I have a gun,” it read. “Give me all the money.” He had no gun, but he did have a gift for seeming sincere, and the teller stuffed $2,500 worth of bills from her cash drawer into a manila envelope while Gurule smiled pleasantly and made small talk about the weather. Soon afterward, he robbed the same bank again but received only probation after a friend turned him in.

Gurule had an easy way about him and dark-eyed good looks, and during his junior year in high school, he set his sights on Malisa Smith, a soft-spoken girl with hazel eyes and long honey-colored hair, introducing himself to her one chilly afternoon after school by wrapping his jacket around her shoulders. Over the course of their romance, Gurule would acquire a few belongings that seemed beyond his means—among them a black Chevy pickup, a black leather jacket, snakeskin boots, and a 10mm Colt Delta Elite handgun—but initially neither Malisa, nor his friends and co-workers at the Corpus Christi State School, where he held a part-time job, suspected that the meticulously dressed, well-mannered Gurule led a life of crime. “If he had a double life, he didn’t want those two lives to cross,” Smith explained from the Sycamore Unit in Gatesville, where she is now serving 25 years for being an accessory to the crime that sent Gurule to death row. “He didn’t tell me his business, and I didn’t ask questions.”

Gurule was sentenced to death in 1993 for robbing the U & I Restaurant, a family-owned Greek diner where Malisa had briefly worked before being fired for cash-register irregularities. On October 12, 1992, while Malisa waited in her car outside, Gurule went to the diner shortly after midnight, cutting the phone lines and forcing co-owner Mike Piperis and custodian Tony Staton at gunpoint into the back room, where he stole $9,000 from the safe and shot both men execution-style, each with one bullet to the head. The police would arrest Gurule less than a week later after tracing the bullets back to the handful of Corpus Christi residents who owned Colt Delta Elite handguns and piecing together the relationship between Gurule and Malisa Smith. “Both the physical and circumstantial evidence against him were overwhelming,” concedes even his defense attorney, Edward Garza. “They literally found the smoking gun.” But Gurule insisted on testifying on his own behalf, spinning a wild story about how Piperis had called him down to the diner that night to dissuade him from reporting the business to the IRS for tax fraud and how, after a struggle, his gun had accidentally gone off.

“He had always been able to talk his way out of anything,” recalled prosecutor Mark Skurka, “and he thought he was going to be able to talk his way out of this one, but the jury thought they were being flimflammed. He was happy, casual, throughout the whole trial, but when they handed down their sentence, that was the first time the smile was wiped off his face.” Gurule, whose greatest phobia was needles, learned that he was to be put to death by lethal injection.

His first escape attempt took place when he tried to flee the Corpus Christi courthouse during a lunch break at his trial. Locked inside a holding cell, he waited for bailiff Lilia Ann Gutierrez to walk down the hall to the court reporter’s office for lunch, then leaned his back against the cement wall for support and kicked the door of his cell until the deadbolt broke. Gutierrez found him red faced and panting, his efforts foiled by another locked door that was beyond his holding cell. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore,” he told her. He would express similar sentiments to Malisa Smith. “He felt like he was in a cage, waiting to die,” she explained. “He said, ‘I’m not going to let them kill me.’”

But if Gurule had escape on his mind when he arrived at death row, it would prove to be a more difficult task. A rectangular redbrick building ten miles north of Huntsville, Ellis is surrounded by long stretches of bare, well-lit grounds, as well as six guard towers and two 12-foot-tall fences, spaced eight feet apart and topped with razor wire. Motion detectors are installed along the prison’s outer fence, and heartbeat detectors are used to scan vehicles leaving the prison. There are few opportunities to hatch a complex escape plan; all mail and phone calls are monitored, all inmates may be patted down or strip-searched at any time, and all five-by-nine-foot cells—where inmates can keep only a few approved belongings—are open for observation and are always subject to a shakedown.

When he first arrived at Ellis, five and a half years ago, Gurule had little freedom of movement; locked inside his cell for 23 hours each day, he was allowed out only to shower and exercise and was always escorted in handcuffs and leg shackles by guards. As he grew accustomed to Ellis, he made do with what few materials he was given—he tailored his prison clothes and lifted makeshift weights to keep in shape—and with his good disciplinary record, he was given a job in the prison’s garment factory in 1996. Classified as “work capable,” Gurule could walk unfettered around Cellblock H-17, coming and going between his cell, the dayroom, and the fenced-in recreation yard as he pleased.

For a man who wanted to escape, it was a windfall. Gurule presumably learned from Ponchai Wilkerson, a 27-year-old thief and convicted murderer who occupied a neighboring cell, about Wilkerson’s use of a hacksaw blade to cut through a prison recreation-yard fence in a thwarted escape attempt several years earlier. He was also in a position to ask other inmates about the prison’s layout, learn guards’ schedules, and trade contraband. In December 1997 Gurule’s motion for an appeal was denied, and what lay before him began to take on a sense of inevitability. “Nobody gets strapped down and lives to tell,” he wrote in a letter to a fellow inmate. “As far as one gets is the death house. I’ve not yet received a date . . . but I have been affirmed and I can tell you of one emotion that comes strongly to mind. Desperation.”

Shortly after Thanksgiving dinner on the evening of November 26, Gurule, Wilkerson, and five other death row inmates in Cellblock H-17 stuffed their beds with makeshift dummies and strolled into the recreation yard, which is covered on top and on all sides by chain-link fencing. Climbing to the top of the fencing, the escapees cut the metal—with a hacksaw, according to published reports—then peeled one corner back, squeezed through the hole, and clambered onto the prison roof, which was flat and partially obscured by a low retaining wall that ran along its perimeter. Gurule and the other six inmates had darkened their prison-issue long underwear with black markers and went undetected as they crawled roughly one thousand yards from the north end of the roof to the southern end, where the chapel is located. The men would hide there for several hours while fog crept in; meanwhile, a guard who walked his rounds through Cellblock H-17 and saw the sleeping figures of the dummies reported the men present and accounted for. At a quarter past midnight, the inmates descended the chapel’s sloped roof to the ground and bolted 75 yards to the perimeter fences, with Gurule leading the pack. He easily scaled the first perimeter fence, then the second. When shots rang out from the guard towers, the other six men dropped to the ground in surrender. Ahead of them, Gurule kept on running.

A WEEK AFTER MARTIN GURULE WAS found floating in Harmon Creek, having drowned less than a mile from death row, he had been all but forgotten. The biggest news in Huntsville was the opening of a tractor store, an event that graced the front page of the Huntsville Item. Christmas decorations hung from the antique shops along the town square, and at the Cafe Texan, where ranchers and county courthouse employees gathered for their morning coffee, conversation centered around the cold front that was moving in. The reporters who had descended upon Huntsville from around the country for the manhunt’s denouement—“Gurule is no more,” announced public information officer Larry Fitzgerald to the assembled television cameras, ripping the fugitive’s wanted poster to pieces and tossing them to the ground—were long gone, as were the Canadian reporters who had stood outside the Walls to cover the scheduled execution of a fellow citizen. Huntsville had resumed a certain sense of normalcy, settling into the quietness of Christmas.

At the Ellis Unit, which had been classified as a crime scene and was off-limits to the media, there were plenty of unanswered questions, which TDCJ officials declined to address until the internal affairs division completed its investigation in late January. It was clear, however, that significant changes would need to be made; Gurule’s escape was made possible not by an isolated instance of human error but by multiple mistakes throughout the prison, and while speculation had initially centered on whether he was assisted by someone on the inside, a more likely scenario is that prison guards at Ellis had simply grown complacent. “For months now there has been a steady evaporation of security on the 2nd shift,” one death row inmate wrote to me in a recent letter. “It had gotten so bad that inmates complained about it, partly for our own safety, and partly because we knew we’d lose a lot (which we all did) because of someone else’s failed scheme.”

Security at the Ellis Unit indeed had grown remarkably lax: Gurule and his fellow escapees apparently were able to obtain a hacksaw blade and to enter a recreation yard unattended, and their failure to return to their cells went unnoticed. Moreover, guards gave their beds such cursory glances that they failed to notice that men did not lie under the covers. And six guards in watchtowers surrounding the prison did not see the inmates scale the rec-yard wall, traverse the length of the prison’s roof, and remain there for nearly four hours. For those who assumed that death row was escape-proof, Gurule’s breakout provided ample evidence to the contrary; even the motion detectors along the perimeter fences reportedly were not tripped when he made his escape.

No one followed Martin Gurule’s escape more intensely than other inmates, who clustered around television sets in prison dayrooms and listened in their cells to hourly news updates on their radios. During the week that followed the discovery of his body, few of them believed the reports that Gurule had drowned. “Hell, everybody knows there’s more to it than that,” a man in a release work shirt said as he stood by the register at the Surplus Store, a drab clothing outlet next to the Huntsville bus station, the first stop for men just released from the Walls. “They probably beat him or shot him and dumped him out there in the river for someone to find.” A thin man in his twenties with a crooked grin nodded in agreement. “Kind of strange that two prison guards found him, don’t you think?” Behind them, several men rifled through piles of blue jeans and faded T-shirts and, upon finding a few things to their liking, tore off their prison-issue clothes as quickly as they could, stepping into pants that hung loosely about their waists and studying themselves in the mirror. Savoring the pleasures of the free world, one man surveyed the store with a broad smile, then fished in his pocket for a quarter and helped himself to a gumball. “This is lovely. This is lovely,” a lanky black man said softly, running his hands along the glass counter and eyeing the rows of cigarettes, sucking in his breath when he saw the prices. “Three dollars and thirty cents?” he whistled. “I’ve been gone too long.”

Outside, where men wearing their new ill-fitting jeans leaned in the shade, sipping beer from paper bags and waiting for the next bus to Fort Worth, I asked a short black man in his twenties if he had ever contemplated escaping. He had spent the past six years at the Beto Unit for cocaine possession. “Two years ago, we were working the fields, and I saw a drainage ditch that looked like it led to the other side,” he recalled. “The grate was loose, and I thought about it for a minute or two, but I didn’t do it. They put you back in the joint for twenty-five years if they catch you, you know.” Squinting in the bright sunlight, he cupped his hand over his eyes and watched the bus to Fort Worth roll up, a sprinting greyhound painted along its side. “Six years I waited for this moment,” he said quietly, “and now it’s here.” Condemned murderer Martin Gurule couldn’t wait for freedom to come to him; his only hope, however scant, was to run.

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