Police say they fought off two guards in a deadly gun battle, fled more than 300 miles across three states and used a decoy vehicle to expedite their getaway. Jennifer Hyatte, who allegedly organized Tuesday's audacious jailbreak for George Hyatte, her husband of three months, cut her hair and dyed it black to conceal her identity.
Jennifer Hyatte, 31, was a nurse at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tenn., and George Hyatte, 34, was a prisoner when they met. After Jennifer Hyatte was dismissed from her prison job on Aug. 27, 2004, they saw each other just once before this week: in the visitor center at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution on May 21, where they were married by the prison chaplain. They had little time alone together until those moments Tuesday when he allegedly jumped into the car she was driving after police say she fatally shot a guard to break him out of prison.
After Tuesday's gun battle in the parking lot of the Roane County Courthouse, law enforcement officials said they expected another bloody confrontation when they caught the fugitives, fearing that the couple, cornered and frightened, might try to shoot their way out.
So when a tip came at 8 p.m. Wednesday from a cabdriver in Cincinnati that a man and woman matching the Hyattes' description were in the America's Best Value Inn in Columbus, U.S. Marshal John Bolen took no chances. He surrounded the building with 25 law enforcement officers, including members of the Columbus SWAT team.
Once their room had been identified, U.S. Deputy Marshal Nikki Rawston called on the phone and asked if she was speaking to Jennifer. "Yes" came the response. The hunt was over. George Hyatte was taken to Franklin County Regional Jail. Jennifer Hyatte, who was shot in the thigh in the gun battle, was hospitalized briefly and then transferred to the same jail.
The pair will appear in Franklin County Municipal Court on Friday morning for an extradition hearing to return them to Tennessee. They face charges of first-degree murder in the death of Wayne "Cotton" Morgan, a 28-year veteran of the corrections department and father of two.
The attack occurred around 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, when police say Jennifer Hyatte drove up in a Ford Explorer and fired at the corrections officers taking her husband back to prison. Morgan was hit in the abdomen and was immediately airlifted to a medical center near Knoxville. He was pronounced dead within an hour.
The couple sped off, police said, abandoning a sport-utility vehicle in a nearby Subway parking lot and switching to a Chevrolet Venture minivan, heading north. They stopped for the night at a motel near Cincinnati, abandoning the minivan, which was found Wednesday by police.
From there, police said the pair hailed a cab to Columbus, handing the driver, Mike Wagers, two $100 bills at the start of the journey. According to Bolen, they insisted that Wagers book them a room in a motel under his name.
"The cover story they gave me didn't really seem to wash too much. But I had no indication that these guys were really dangerous or they were on the run," Wagers said Thursday on CBS's "Early Show." It was only when he got home, he said, that it dawned on Wagers who they were, and he tipped off the police.
George Hyatte, who was serving a 35-year sentence for aggravated assault and aggravated robbery, was notorious because in the 1980s he robbed a house during the lunch break of a court appearance. He had escaped before -- in 1990, 1991, 1998 and 2002. His security, however, was downgraded from "maximum" to "close" on Sept. 1, 2004, and he was moved to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
His brother, Michael, said Thursday in a telephone interview that he was "surprised" at what had happened, but he refused to talk further.
Jennifer, born Jennifer Lyn Forsyth, grew up in Salt Lake City and worked in a food-packing plant in the early 1990s. While she was at West Jordan High School, she met Eli Gourdin, the first of four husbands. They wed in 1992 and were together eight years.
In June, Gourdin drove to Tennessee to pick up their sons, 11 and 12, and a daughter, 9, for the summer. On Wednesday night, he had the grim task of explaining to them what had happened. "They cried, they are still upset -- my youngest daughter is particularly devastated, she was so close to her mother," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. He said he tried to prevent them from watching events unfold on television.
George Hyatte had become involved in the children's lives, Gourdin said, speaking to them regularly by telephone from prison. "The kids actually said they loved him, and he said he loved them back," Gourdin said. "He never met with them, but they said he was softly spoken, nice and never raised his voice. Jennifer let him become a father figure. I didn't really mind, because I was in Utah and they needed a father figure."
Gourdin said he has arranged to take full custody of the three children.
Hyatte married twice more before meeting her current husband. According to records seen by the Knoxville News Sentinel, she was still married to Gordon R. Taylor when she wed George Hyatte. The divorce decree was not entered until three days after the marriage. Taylor could not be reached for comment.
Jennifer Hyatte received her nursing license in May 2004 and started work at the Northwest Correctional Complex on May 19 as a licensed nurse, providing clinical care to inmates of all security classifications.
Amanda Sluss, a spokeswoman for the facility, said in a telephone interview that it was "very hard to speculate" how the relationship with George Hyatte started, adding that medical personnel are always accompanied by a security officer. Jennifer Hyatte was dismissed 31/2 months later, after it was discovered she had been smuggling food to Hyatte.
After she was fired, Jennifer Hyatte was "not an approved visitor" and was barred from visiting Hyatte on security grounds, except on the day of the wedding, Sluss said.
Gourdin was one of the last people to speak to Jennifer Hyatte before the escape. "I talked to her on Monday. I sensed a little bit of excitement, but nothing like this," he said. "I'm devastated, heartbroken. I never thought she could do this. She was always a good mother and a good wife."