My Last “real” Manhunt – Prison Break by Helicopter
“A helicopter plucked three inmates from a state prison yard amid of gunfire today. About 100 prisoners were in the exercise yard at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe when the escape helicopter, an Aerospatiale Gazelle, landed about 9:50 A.M. and picked up three inmates. Guards in two towers opened fire as the copter took off.”
Getting up that Monday morning July 11, 1988, was like any other morning in a workweek that changes weekends when you are a correctional officer. Taking the day off and having an 11 o’clock lunch appointment to meet with my best friend Rosales in Albuquerque, I was headed down the interstate heading north to the Duke city.
Right about the time I got to the Rio Grande exit, I saw a small helicopter to my left flying at low altitude and high speed. Seconds later, another helicopter, a bigger one was what appeared to be chasing the little helicopter at telephone pole altitude. Thinking nothing of it since the international airport was just located to the right of the freeway and there was always traffic in the sky, I continued on my way to have lunch with my friend.
As I was about to pull up to his apartment, my pager went off and coded me to call the facility. Just about that time, Rosales exited his apartment and told me his pager went off as well. Both of us being members of the prison’s emergency response team, we carried pagers twenty four seven for recalls.
Calling the master control at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility where the two of us were assigned, the line was busy. Eventually, after redialing the number a few times, the master control officer stated that Santa Fe had an escape out of the recreation yard by a helicopter heading south to Los Lunas.
In an instant, my mind flashed back to the scene what must have been a good ten minutes by now and realized I had witnessed the escape by air from the car as I was heading into the city. Immediately, Rosales and I jumped into the car with the air conditioner broken as the sweltering heat baked us in the hot July sun. We headed south to Los Lunas at a very high speed hoping we would not be stopped by any cops patrolling the highway because of the escape.
In about a record 25 minutes or so, we both checked in with the shift supervisor at the prison complex and were told to report to the Mid Valley airport for staging. We asked for our issued weapons and were told they were already delivered to the airport and will be handed out at the staging area where the deputy warden and the major would make team assignments.
The airport, about 5 minutes across the road from the state prison, was already packed with patrol cars and lawmen. Many were still arriving and being briefed by their team leaders. Searching for our response team command center, we found it next to an empty white steel hanger to keep us out of the heat.
The major and deputy warden were busy making assignments as another officer was marking the grease board with their names and team leaders. As we reported in we were told we would be assigned as escorts for the Santa Fe Penitentiary K9 team headed up by a major and two handlers.
Told they were still about 30 minutes away from the airport, we were told to stand down and rest for the tracking hounds would drag us through the river Bosque and the thick brushers relentlessly following the tracks and scent of the fugitives.
Strangely when we asked for our weapons, we were told there were none left and that’s when the deputy warden said to me “Carl, you have guns at home, go get them and bring them here quickly.” Without hesitation, I headed down the road to the house approximately 15 minutes away.
Rushing home and out of breath, I ran into the bedroom and opened the gun cabinet where I retrieved my 9 mm semi auto, my 12 Mossberg shotgun and my .44 special Smith & Wesson. I figured this was enough for us plus one.
The heat had taken a toll and I needed some water to refresh before heading back. The adrenalin rush was keeping the heart pumping so energy was not a problem. Arriving back at the command center, I issued out the shotgun to Rosales and kept the 9 mm for myself. I gave my .44 to another officer waiting to be assigned to a team and as we checked our gear, the K9 showed up to be briefed at the command center.
The briefing went like this as reported “the helicopter had left the Santa Fe prison as an unknown person identified as a heavy set woman had pointed a gun on the pilot and ordered him to fly to the Santa Fe State Pen. The helicopter then headed for the prison recreation yard where the unknown person told the pilot she was trying to assist some inmates’ escape that he needed to set his helicopter down in the prison yard.
The pilot, following the woman’s orders, landed the helicopter in the prison yard, where three inmates climbed on board.” The incident command stated we were looking for three inmates and handed out fliers of them. We were all told they are armed and dangerous.
Furthermore, it appeared that one of the inmates had returned to the helicopter and forced the pilot to fly and head back north towards Albuquerque. Thus we are looking for two inmates and one heavy set woman.
The K9 team had some clothing they had retrieved from the prison and let the dogs sniff and go to work. The pace was hectic as the brush was thick and the heat was miserable. Mosquitoes by the millions, we ran up and down, in circles, and back again covering the trails over and over with no luck so far as tracking goes.
We came upon a barn with a two story storage area and it was decided by the team I should take point with others flanking me for cover. Slowly and tediously I searched the barn, the hayloft and every nook and cranny as my heart was pounding as hard as never before.
Losing the scent quiet often we ended up doing spot checks as we went up and down the riverbanks of the Rio Grande River that was partially dried up but still had a few feet of water along the shores to make it soggy. I remember it was late in the afternoon that we had confirmed that two of the three inmates had been captured.
In the meantime, inmate Mitchell was captured in Albuquerque when the helicopter set down on the tarmac of the international airport after being chased and forced down by two helicopters, one by the Customs Blackhawk and the other being a state police helicopter.
The other inmate, Mackey, doing a 9 year number was caught when he ran and heisted a pick up truck as he was being chased by the deputies. He was captured quickly as the vehicle he had stolen spun out of control and suffered slight gunshot wounds due to gunfire by the pursuing deputies. The woman, identified as a 250 pound suspect named Shoemaker, was also in custody.
Our radios were acting up and it was hard to hear everything on the radios but we knew we had one more to look for as we attempted to flush him out of the wooded riverbanks.
Lawrence Romero, the Valencia County sheriff was worried about it getting dark and the inmate getting into some of the houses near the river, said to intensify the search.
We took one house at a time and searched their lofts, their barns, their storage sheds and anywhere else the inmate could hide. Jumping over barbed wire fences and dodging the heavy mosquitoes, we were sweating up a storm trying to find this guy.
Approaching one of the mobile home trailers with darkness hiding our faces and not wearing uniforms, we had a homeowner pull a shotgun on us by fright we might be the escapee. After some convincing we were the law, he lowered his shotgun and motioned us to proceed.
Chattering as we went, we made enough noise to flush out the birds or anything else out there. We lost some time during the search when the K9 major lost his .357 and we tried to find it in the muddy waters giving up after a short while since we had to fight the darkness and find inmate Mahoney, the lone escapee remaining.
The search became more organized as more responders arrived. We were now methodically sweeping both sides of the river and with this sweep we managed to flush the inmate out about a ½ a mile ahead of us with him running into the arms of the deputies waiting for him near the bridge.
At the debriefing we were told we all did a fantastic job and thanks went around with some loud cheers of “hoorah”.
The case regarding the helicopter pilot took a bizarre twist as “Bella said he had no choice but to do as he was told.”I examined every way out and I didn't have a way out -- not a way out alive," he said at the time. Two of the prisoners said Bella was no dupe.
They claimed he was in on the escape. The woman, though, said Bella was an innocent victim. Bella passed three lie-detector tests. No matter, the state of New Mexico put him on trial in 1989 in Santa Fe. Bailey, himself a helicopter pilot, represented Bella. Bailey told jurors the case was one of an embarrassed state government and unfair prosecutors harassing an innocent pilot.
Bella and his helicopter had appeared in "Rambo III." He would not have risked his life for thugs he did not even know, Bailey said. The jury acquitted Bella after a 10-day trial. Bailey left town even before the verdict was announced. He said there was no doubt about the outcome.” (El Paso Times)
This was the last manhunt of my career. There were other escapes and other fugitive searches but this was the most memorable and likely the most exciting of them all as it was revealed after the fact we were just feet away from these fugitives hiding on the river banks behind some thickened grass or bushes waiting for us to leave the area so they could try to make their way out of the containment area.