Reign of terror: Five Galveston inmates terrorize county in 1969 jailbreak

At about 3:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 21, 1969, Deputy Tony Socias Jr. was making his rounds at the Galveston County jail. When he reached the third floor, he noticed water filling the hallway. He rushed to cell 3G, where the flood appeared to be seeping under the bars. In the middle of the cell, he saw prisoner William Smith “Butch” Ainsworth facedown on the floor, with his cellmate, Joseph McMahon, standing over him.

Butch Ainsworth (The Galveston Daily News)

Butch Ainsworth (The Galveston Daily News)

“Butch is hurt, and hurt bad,” McMahon told the deputy. “We couldn’t get the water stopped.”

Socias pulled out his keys and unlocked the cell door. As the deadbolt scraped out of the lock, the unsuspecting jailer unleashed what The Galveston Daily News described as a “reign of terror” that would captivate Galveston County for two days and take more than 100 lawmen to subdue.

When Socias stepped into the cell, McMahon slammed him into the bars while Ainsworth leapt up and started to choke him. Once they had Socias under control, the prisoners ordered him to call the night jail sergeant to come help with the water. If he refused, they said they would choke him to death.

After Socias made the call, McMahon, a robbery suspect, and Ainsworth, a murder suspect, took his keys and locked him in their cell. Then they freed Carl Bruce “Buster” Harris, a convicted murderer. When Sgt. Ernest Tudor arrived to check on the water, the prisoners beat him to the floor and stole his pocket knife. They forced Tudor to go to cell 3D, which held six prisoners. The escapees ordered him to release just one—Ronnie Roper, who was being held for the same murder as Ainsworth. At cell 3F, they freed armed robbery suspect George Earl Howard, completing their crew.

With the two deputies in tow, the five prisoners made their way to a hallway monitored by closed circuit television. Socias unplugged the camera, knocking out the feed in the control room on the first floor. The group waited five minutes for dispatcher Frank Oakley to call Tudor for a safety check. With Ainsworth holding the pocketknife to his throat, Tudor assured Oakley everything was fine.

The prisoners loaded their two hostages onto the elevator and went to the first floor, where they needed to gain access to the locked control room to open the three doors leading to freedom. Socias went to the control room and Oakley opened the door. After the deputy stepped inside, Ainsworth bolted toward the opening. But out of the corner of his eye, Oakley saw the prisoner coming and tried to slam the heavy metal door. Ainsworth got his arm in the doorway just in time to stop it closing, but it crashed down on his hand. Tudor jumped on Ainsworth but couldn’t subdue him, or prevent him from pulling the knife and putting it to Oakley’s throat. The injured prisoner ordered the dispatcher to open the doors.

Roper took a .38-caliber pistol from the jailers’ storage locker and gave it to Ainsworth, who held the deputies at gunpoint while his fellow escapees looted the personal effects of the other prisoners, netting about $200. Howard took the escapees’ files from the booking office. Before walking out of the jail, the five men locked the jailers in a padded cell and demanded Tudor hand over his car keys. Hoping to slow them down, he gave them the key to the trunk, not the ignition.

In the parking lot, while the prisoners were loading into Turdor’s car, Deputy Bob Williamson arrived for work. They pounced on him, taking his gun and holding him hostage. As they were trying to get Tudor’s car to start with the trunk key, a passerby stopped to help. Edward Muller was on his way home from taking his wife to work at the University of Texas Medical Branch. That was just the beginning of a very bad day for the retired electrician.

With Ainsworth in the lead, the prisoners piled into Muller’s car, dragging him and Williamson with them. They peeled out of the jail parking lot shortly before 5 a.m.

Find out tomorrow where the escapees went next and how they evaded a state-wide manhunt.

George Howard, Joseph McMahon, Buster Harris, and Ronnie Roper (The Galveston Daily News)

George Howard, Joseph McMahon, Buster Harris, and Ronnie Roper (The Galveston Daily News)

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