A 31-year-old man who, with his father and brother, created a four-day reign of terror in 1972 that started with the murder of a policeman and a bank manager in Arlington and ended in Havana after a plane hijacking, walked away last night from a state prison near Roanoke, authorities said.
The escape of Bryce Matthew Tuller was the latest in a series of disturbances and breakouts from Virginia prisons that started in late May with the largest death-row escape in U.S. history. The state prison system is reeling from the resignation of the corrections director and has been attacked repeatedly by Gov. Charles S. Robb.
State corrections department spokesman Wayne Farrar said Tuller, serving two life sentences plus 10 years for first-degree murder, felonious injury and escape, walked through the main door of the Bland Correctional Center's administration building to freedom about 7:05 p.m.
Tuller had gone to a basement mail room, carrying a package to be mailed, Farrar said. "When the officer turned to weigh it, Tuller apparently walked through a door just steps away that was supposed to be locked." The door leads to steps to the main floor of the administration building and, a few steps away, the main door of the building, Farrar said.
Late last night, a spokeswoman for the Bland County sheriff's department said tracking dogs had followed Tuller's trail into a mountainous area called Dismal Creek several miles east of the prison. She said officials feared for the safety of residents and scores of hunters who were camped overnight in the area.
Joining the sheriff's officers in the search were Virginia State Police and officers from the correctional center.
Tuller, his father Charles and brother Jonathan, pleaded guilty in 1975 to murdering police officer Israel P. Gonzalez and bank manager Harry J. Candee during a bungled robbery attempt at the Arlington Trust Co.'s Crystal Mall branch on Oct. 25, 1972.
After those killings, the men drove to Houston, where they hijacked an Eastern Airlines plane to Cuba.
The Tullers returned from Cuba in 1975. Bryce Tuller was arrested in Fayetteville, N.C., for attempted robbery, and his brother and father later turned themselves in. They received a sentence of 100 years for air piracy and kidnaping in a Texas federal court in addition to long sentences from a Virginia court in the slayings at the Arlington bank.
The elder Tuller later claimed that the purpose of the robbery was to finance and lead a small, "extremely mobile" squad of armed men who would involve people in radical politics of change.
"I feel that what I did, I did with honor and with the intention of making my country a more humane place," Charles Tuller told The Washington Post shortly before his sentencing in Arlington.
The current controversy over the state prison system began after the escape May 31 of six condemned prisoners from the death row at Mecklenburg Correction Center near the North Carolina state line. All the escapees were recaptured.
Last night's escape followed by only six days the escape of five prisoners from the Nottoway Correctional Center about 45 miles southwest of Richmond. The day after that escape, Robb accepted the resignation of corrections chief Robert Landon. All of the Nottoway escapees were recaptured.