From stolen freedom to death row

Butch Ainsworth, Ronnie Roper, and Buster Harris hoped to get as far as Mexico, where they could enjoy the freedom they gained in their daring escape from the Galveston County jail on Nov. 21, 1969.

They made it as far as Flatonia, Texas.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 22, the fugitives stopped to get gas at a service station in Schulenburg. After they drove away, with their three hostages, the attendant called police. Another witness spotted the group headed into the woods near Flatonia later that morning.

Officers from several law enforcement agencies converged on the area. A deputy sheriff spotted their abandoned car, and a helicopter flying overhead saw a woman waving from a clearing in the trees. One of the fugitives fired at the chopper, but the men eventually decided it was futile to try to shoot their way out. They were surrounded, outmanned, and outgunned.

After signaling they wanted to surrender, the fugitives each took a hostage as a human shield and walked out of the woods.

Buster Harris (left), Butch Ainsworth (white shirt), and Ronnie Roper (dark shirt) arrive back at the Galveston County jail. (The Galveston Daily News/Travis Burgess)

Buster Harris (left), Butch Ainsworth (white shirt), and Ronnie Roper (dark shirt) arrive back at the Galveston County jail. (The Galveston Daily News/Travis Burgess)

“I’m just going to try and forget it now,” Mrs. Robert Nicholls said after she was freed.

Irene Alexander comforts her son, Tommy, as Mrs. Robert Nicholls talks to police about their ordeal (Associated Press)

Irene Alexander comforts her son, Tommy, as Mrs. Robert Nicholls talks to police about their ordeal (Associated Press)

The other hostage, Irene Alexander, cried during an interview with reporters. Her 12-year-old son, Tommy, said he was ready to go back to school. The day he spent as a hostage was his first time to miss class in two and a half years, his mother said.

Galveston deputies returned Harris, Roper, and Ainsworth to the county jail and held them under maximum security until they went to trial.

George Howard, who surrendered just a few hours after the escape, was the first to face a jury, in May 1970. During testimony in that case, Roper described Ainsworth as the enforcer and said the other men were too afraid not to go with him when he hatched the breakout plan. Roper also fingered Ainsworth as the triggerman in Joseph McMahon’s shooting. When he took the stand in his own defense, Howard testified he feared for his life. Even so, the jury gave him five years in prison. He got off lightly, compared to the other three escapees.

In 1971, Roper got 15 years in jail.

Days before he would have gone on trial in 1972, Ainsworth pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit murder for shooting Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Williams. The judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

But Carl Bruce “Buster” Harris ended up with the harshest sentence—death. Before the breakout, Harris was convicted of murdering his foster mother and her friend in 1967. He spent less than two years on death row in Huntsville. In June 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 39 death sentences, including the one a Galveston jury gave Harris. The court said jurors who opposed the death penalty were illegally excluded from the panel that considered the case. Galveston County District Attorney Jules Damiani at first said he would seek a new trial. But in August 1972, Texas Gov. Preston Smith commuted the sentence to life in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals confirmed the sentence in September.

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