The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

August 20, 2013

Defense raises questions about witness credibility

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal prosecutors say this is a case that started with two separate trips: one from a modest country home in Oklahoma; the other from a medium-security prison in the desert just outside Kingman, Ariz.

They collided on a hot summer day at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico border.

Prosecutor Greg Fouratt told jurors what followed was a series of “unspeakable crimes.”

“Ultimately this case is about the targeting, the carjacking, the shooting to death and the incinerating of a husband and wife,” he said Monday during opening statements in the trial of John McCluskey.

McCluskey is the last of three defendants to be tried on capital murder and carjacking charges in the 2010 slayings of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. It was three years ago Monday that McCluskey was taken into custody after he, a fellow inmate and an accomplice sparked a three-week nationwide manhunt.

McCluskey was arrested wearing Gary Haas’ John Deere baseball cap 17 days after the couple was killed. But defense attorney Michael Burt told jurors that prosecutors will be unable to prove his client shot and killed the couple after they crossed paths.

The government’s whole case, Burt said in opening statements, hangs solely on the testimony of McCluskey’s two alleged accomplices: one a man who has a history of violent crimes and drug abuse, the other a woman who the defense team contends has repeatedly lied to investigators.

Burt questioned their credibility, noting they both cut deals to avoid the death penalty.

“The government can’t prove without a reasonable doubt that John McCluskey pulled the trigger and killed Gary and Linda Haas,” he said.

Testimony began Monday afternoon with a friend of the Haases and an investigator with the Arizona Department of Corrections who responded the night McCluskey and two other inmates escaped.

Tuesday morning, a truck driver who was kidnapped outside Kingman, Ariz., the night of the prison break took the stand to detail his four-and-a-half hour captivity.

He said the trio had guns pointed at him but reassured him and his co-driver they would not be hurt as long as they did not do anything stupid.

“They said, ‘We just escaped from prison and we need a ride. Be smart. If you do something, we’ll shoot you,”’ said Prabhjeet Bains.

Bains said he was sure he and his partner were going to die, but they eventually stopped near Flagstaff and the trio caught another ride.

Fouratt said his team plans to call about 50 witnesses and present a few hundred exhibits, including photographs and audio and video clips.

An audience that included family and friends of the victims packed the courtroom Monday. The trial is expected to last up to four months.

Prosecutors said the Haases, both 61, were targeted for their pickup truck and travel trailer when they stopped at the rest area. Linda Haas had just finished making lunch inside the trailer and was walking back to the truck when McCluskey and fellow fugitive Tracy Province took her at gunpoint.

Fouratt detailed for jurors what would be the last hour of the couple’s lives: They were forced to drive to a desolate spot off of Interstate 40, where they were then ordered into their trailer and shot. The trailer was hauled miles down dirt roads to a more remote location where it was unhitched and torched with the bodies inside.

Two days later, a rancher discovered the crime scene. Skull fragments, eyeglass frames and Linda Haas’ wedding ring were among the charred remains.

The stolen truck was found in Albuquerque. McCluskey’s fingerprints were found on plastic wrapping inside, prosecutors said.

Photographs of the burned-out trailer and the fugitives’ weapons were shown to jurors. Prosecutors also passed around the tools used in the prison escape.

Surveillance camera footage from various locations showed Gary Haas in his John Deere cap — the same hat McCluskey was wearing when he was arrested.

McCluskey and the other prisoners had help with their escape plot from his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch. But after their initial getaway plan was foiled, they were stuck driving more than 1,000 miles in a cramped sedan without air conditioning.

Burt, the defense attorney, accused Welch of targeting the Haases. He pointed to an early interview she had with investigators in which she used derogatory terms to describe the couple and called the fugitives “the dumbest, unluckiest yo-yos in the world.”

“Who’s the decision-maker here?” Burt asked jurors.

Prosecutors contend that testimony will show it was McCluskey who shot the couple multiple times.

Welch and Province both face life sentences after pleading guilty last year to charges stemming from the Haases’ deaths.

McCluskey was previously serving 15 years in Arizona for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.

 

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