Fugitives escape Galveston County blockade, take more hostages

Deputies look at blood stains at Irene Alexander's home in Dickinson (The Galveston Daily News)

Deputies look at blood stains at Irene Alexander’s home in Dickinson (The Galveston Daily News)

Five escaped prisoners and their two hostages peeled out of the Galveston County jail parking lot shortly before 5 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 21, 1969, with George Earl Howard behind the wheel. Ringleader Butch Ainsworth, who was awaiting trial on a murder charge, wanted to go to Hitchcock, where he said they could get another car. But Howard convinced them to go to his parents’ house in Texas City. When Howard’s father refused to give them his car, Ainsworth pulled a gun on him and the fugitives took it anyway.

When his former jail mates took off, Howard stayed behind. He hung around long enough to change clothes, leaving his parents’ house shortly before deputies arrived to question them. The officers urged the Howards to persuade their son to give himself up. Not long after that, at about 9 a.m., Howard’s mother called Texas City police and said her son had returned and was ready to surrender.

Meanwhile, the rest of the fugitives—Ainsworth, Ronnie Roper, Joseph McMahon, and Buster Harris—hadn’t gotten very far. The car ran out of gas after only four blocks. The men spotted another car in a nearby driveway and broke into the house, where they found Irene Alexander and her 12-year-old son, Tommy. Taking them hostage as well, the fugitives loaded into the Alexander family car and continued to head inland.

By this time, police from all over the state swarmed the county looking for the escapees. They set up blockades on all roads leaving Galveston county. Search teams included Texas Rangers and Department of Public Safety officers. A Houston Police Department helicopter scoured the bayshore area and the swamplands around Hitchcock. Tips and suspected sightings came flooding in.

But the escapees managed to make it to Dickinson undetected. There they broke into the Nicholls home, where they holed up for the next 17 hours, adding Robert Nicholls, his wife, and his mother to the four hostages they already had.

“They were real nice to all the women,” Mrs. Nicholls later told police. Once or twice they spoke angrily to her, “but they were almost always respectful to us.”

The men didn’t fare so well. The fugitives severely beat both Galveston Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Williamson and Edward Muller, threatening at one point to “blow their heads off” if they moved.

For most of the day Friday, the fugitives drank whiskey and watched television reports of the effort to recapture them. The tension—and maybe the alcohol—soon fractured the crew. Ainsworth and McMahon had started to argue by the time the men fled the Nicholls home sometime after dark, Muller later told police. They left behind Muller, Nicholls, and his mother.

By midnight, the fugitives had made it as far as Richmond, where the tension between them exploded in gunfire. Joseph McMahon caught a bullet in the neck.

“We checked his pulse and heart,” Harris later told police. “He must have died instantly, so we dumped him out.”

Not long after dumping McMahon, they shot Williams too—one bullet lodged in his back and one grazed his head. Thinking they’d killed him, they rolled Williams out of the car. But after they drove off, the deputy got up and managed to walk to Richmond, where he flagged down a passing motorist. He eventually led police to McMahon’s body.

Despite the roadblocks and intense manhunt, the fugitives escaped Galveston County and got almost to La Grange before they stopped again. Taking one of the female hostages with them, two of the fugitives knocked on the door of the Heger home at about 3:30 a.m. They said they were looking for a family who lived in the area and asked to borrow a phone book. When Anna Heger opened the door to hand it to them, one of the men grabbed her arm and pushed their way inside the house. The fugitives tied up Heger and her mother in the back room while they raided the kitchen and bathroom for supplies. They took canned goods, bread, medicine, deodorant, and mosquito repellant. They also took two rifles and two shotguns.

“This is it,” Heger recalled the fugitives saying after they found the guns. “We got what we came after.”

Before they left, they cut the phone line and some electrical wires on the Hegers’ car. The women quickly escaped after they heard the fugitives drive off. But Heger had to walk for a quarter of a mile before she could hitch a ride into town to call the sheriff from an all-night service station.

“I’ve seen it happen on TV, but I didn’t ever think it would happen to me,” she said after the ordeal was over.

Come back tomorrow to find out whether the fugitives surrendered peacefully or went down in a hail of bullets.

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