The couple, suspected of killing a 72-year-old Tucson man and burning down his house, was captured after the marshals placed Blane Barksdale on its Top 15 Most Wanted list Monday, offering $35,000 in rewards for information leading to the arrest of both suspects.
Authorities said earlier this week that the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, and the Hells Angels motorcycle gang may have been assisting the couple. An official told The Post on Thursday morning that authorities aren’t sure yet whether those harboring the fugitives were gang members. Blane Barksdale, 56, is allegedly affiliated with the groups, the marshals said.
More information is expected to be released at a Thursday morning news conference.
The Barksdales escaped custody on Aug. 26 while being extradited more than 2,000 miles from Rochester, N.Y., to Pima County, Ariz., to face the murder charges.
The couple allegedly fled to New York after killing 72-year-old Frank Bligh in Tucson in April. Police said they may have stolen a cache of nearly 100 guns before setting fire to his house, causing an explosion. Once the U.S. Marshals Service tracked down the couple and arrested them in New York, a private security contractor was hired to bring them back to Tucson.
Things went terribly wrong.
In the small town of Blanding, Utah, Susan Barksdale, 59, pretended she was having “intestinal issues” and badly needed to go to the bathroom, U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said. “It was compelling enough that they felt the need to pull over,” he said.
But once the two unarmed guards opened the back door, the Barksdales attacked, he said. Despite the fact that they were restrained with belly chains, they managed to overpower the two guards, tie them up and lock them in the back of the vehicle. A third inmate who had been picked up in Kansas City was also in the van, but wanted “nothing to do with” the Barksdales’ escape plan, Gonzales said.
The Barksdales took the van and headed for Vernon, Ariz., a town so small it doesn’t have a police force. There, the couple pulled up to an acquaintance’s house and took a red GMC Sierra pickup truck. One of the Barksdales drove the truck while the other continued to drive the prison van — until abandoning it in the middle of the high desert, with the three victims still locked inside, Gonzales said.
After several hours, the trio managed to break free. The Barksdales left behind the car keys, and so the guards called 911 — having no idea where they were — and followed the operator’s directions to the Apache County Sheriff’s Office in St. Johns, Ariz.
By the time authorities realized the Barksdales had fled, they already had an eight-hour head start.
News of their escape flashed across TV screens and on highway signs, as the marshals urged millions of Arizona drivers to be on the lookout for the Sierra pickup. In Blanding, a town of about 3,600, authorities were so worried that the local high school volleyball team was sent home early, the sheriff told the Associated Press.
Of course, the outlaws were long gone. Hundreds of people called in, believing they had seen the Sierra pickup, Gonzales, said, but none of the calls panned out. “It literally just disappeared off the face of the Earth,” Gonzales said of the truck on Monday.
He said at a Monday news conference that the marshals were changing their strategy, after a fruitless search for the couple for two weeks. Based on tips they had received, the marshals believed the Barksdales were hiding out somewhere east of Snowflake, Ariz., an isolated enclave where dozens have gone to live off the grid, some of whom believe they suffer from environmental illnesses that make it impossible for them to live in populated areas among pollution and technology.
On Wednesday night, the Barksdales were found in Tonto Basin, about 115 miles southeast of Snowflake.
The marshals have not revealed what led them to the couple.
In Pima County, the Barksdales are facing charges of first-degree murder, arson, burglary and auto theft. Blane Barksdale’s nephew, Brent Mallard, 31, was also charged with arson in that case and remains in custody in Pima County.
Bligh had vanished about one week before the fire at his home. His brother reported him missing the same day of the fire, according to the Tucson Police Department, although the home was not occupied at the time it was set. His body has still not been found.