ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — In the hours after an Oklahoma couple were abducted, shot and incinerated inside their travel trailer, there was little reason for two escaped Arizona inmates and their accomplice to discuss what had just happened, according to testimony Tuesday from a key prosecution witness.
Casslyn Welch, the accomplice, spent her second day on the stand detailing the moments leading up to the decision to torch the trailer and the cross-country road trip that ensued as the trio tried to outrun the law.
Welch's cousin and boyfriend, John McCluskey, is being tried on federal carjacking and murder charges in the August 2010 shooting deaths of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. If convicted, he faces either life in prison or the death penalty.
Welch told jurors she and McCluskey knew they had to get rid of the trailer. After finding a desolate spot on the plains of eastern New Mexico, they splashed around a bottle of liquor and used a lighter and a paper bag to ignite it.
Prosecutor Greg Fouratt asked Welch whether she and McCluskey had discussed the killings. "He told me his story, his side of it. He said he knows he'll have to pay for it, he'll deal with it, it's over and done with," she testified.
But under cross-examination, McCluskey's defense team got Welch to admit that she previously lied under oath. Defense attorneys said her testimony was meant to satisfy prosecutors so she could receive a less harsh sentence. They promised to show jurors portions of a taped interview she had with authorities soon after her arrest.
Attorney Gary Mitchell says Welch is "totally the opposite" in the video compared to her measured testimony during two last days. He says the video shows her "mean-spiritedness." Welch has pleaded guilty to charges related to the slayings and the escape and faces up to life in prison.
The slayings happened three days after Welch said she helped McCluskey and two other inmates escape from a privately-run, medium security prison near Kingman. One of the inmates was caught a day later in Colorado, but Welch, McCluskey and his former prison bunkmate Tracy Province sparked a nationwide manhunt.
Their photographs were being flashed on the television news. "The stress level was absolutely beyond max," Welch said. She told jurors that she and the fugitives decided to commandeer a truck and travel trailer so they could "get off the grid" and go into hiding. They spotted the Haases on Aug. 2, 2010. The retired couple had just stopped for lunch at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico state line.
At gunpoint, the couple was forced to drive west until being ordered off Interstate 40 and onto a lonely two-lane road. The truck and trailer stopped after turning around. Welch said she and Province were outside the trailer when gunshots rang out. Prosecutors and testimony over the last three weeks of trial point to McCluskey being the triggerman.
Welch said the trio had no destination in mind. They just wanted to get out of town after seeing their photos while watching television at an Albuquerque motel. They traveled north to Yellowstone National Park, where Province split off. From there, Welch said she and McCluskey traveled to Pennsylvania and then back to Arizona, camping along the way.
Welch said they had learned McCluskey's mother had been arrested for allegedly aiding the fugitives and he wanted to get back to Arizona. She tried to convince him they needed to gather backpacking supplies and "disappear into the mountains."
On Aug. 19, 2010, a ranger stopped at their campsite in Apache County, Ariz., to tell them to make sure their campfire was out. It would be hours later that authorities would descend upon the area, guns drawn.
Welch described it as a "very devastating day." Jurors on Monday heard a series of recorded phone conversations between McCluskey and Welch in which they spoke in code while planning the prison break. The calls often ended with the two declaring their love for one another. While the pair would refer to each other as husband and wife, they were not legally married.
In one call, McCluskey tells Welch she needs to do a better job of following instructions. "If you don't, it's going to be a disaster," he said. "I don't think you understand the severity of it." Welch answered: "Yes I do. I can get killed. You can get killed."