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.

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.”


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