Part II: The capture of prison escapees

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(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.

 

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Three inmates who escaped from the state penitentiary in Sante Fe hijacked a helicopter and its pilot and forced him to fly them to the Mid Valley Airpark, south of Los Lunas. All three were eventually captured.

The author of this month’s column is the author of 15 books on the history of New Mexico, including his newest book, “New Mexico: A Celebration of the Land of Enchantment,” which includes over 400 photos of the state since 1912. His “Sunshine and Shadows in New Mexico’s Past” has just won the New Mexico Book Award for the best New Mexico state centennial book published in 2011. Both books are available at the Harvey House Museum in Belen.

This month’s column is based on newspaper reports and interviews with many of the men and women who participated in the dramatic events of July 11, 1988.

Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

Last week’s edition of La Historia del Rio Abajo described the daring escape of three desperate convicts from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe. On July 11, 1988, Beverly Shoemaker forced pilot Charles Bella to land his Gazelle helicopter in the prison’s exercise yard to pick up three inmates, Francis Preston Mitchell, Randy Mack Lackey and Shoemaker’s boyfriend, Daniel Mahoney.

Racing southward, Bella and his motley set of passengers landed at the Mid Valley Airpark where Lackey stole a truck and sped through Los Lunas before being apprehended by police at the Rio Grande bridge.

Meanwhile, Mahoney fled through the bosque and Mitchell headed north toward Albuquerque with Bella in the pilot’s seat and a U.S. Customs Service Blackhawk helicopter close behind.

Joined by a state police Huey helicopter, the Blackhawk pursued Bella’s Gazelle in a wild aerial chase over Albuquerque. At one point, Bella landed at Coronado airport, but seeing policemen on the ground, Mitchell ordered the pilot to take off again.

Desperate about the safest course to take without drawing more gunfire, Mitchell even asked Bella if he had enough fuel to fly back to Santa Fe to drop him off in the same prison yard from which he had fled just hours before. Bella replied that their fuel tank was nearly empty.

In perhaps the strangest pursuit in New Mexico criminal history, the renegade chopper crisscrossed over Albuquerque’s two malls, downtown district and eastern foothills. TV news helicopters joined law enforcement vehicles in the increasingly crowded sky.

Bella flew as low as 50 feet above the ground. Many watched the spectacle from below. Bob White of Belen recalls seeing aircraft racing by windows at the old Bernalillo courthouse.

Being chased at dangerously close range by the state police Huey to his left and the Customs Service Blackhawk to his right, Bella finally landed at the Albuquerque International Airport. Maj. John Denko, a 13-year state police veteran who piloted the Huey, recalls that he and the Blackhawk’s crew “hung close” to Bella.

“We knew he had to set down because he was running low on fuel,” Denko said.

According to Bella, Mitchell was so concerned for his own safety that he had Bella land near the passenger terminal so the convict’s surrender would “at least be in front of witnesses in case the police tried to gun him down.” Once landed, Mitchell quickly exited the helicopter, threw up his hands and assumed a prone position as eight police officers closed in.

The time was 11:38 a.m. The 40 minute chase from Mid Valley Airpark was over. Mitchell and the previously captured Lackey were back in Santa Fe — in maximum security lockdown — by nightfall.

Back in Valencia County, a huge manhunt had been organized to search for the last escapee on the loose, Daniel Mahoney. State policemen were joined by as many as 150 officers from seven police agencies, including Bosque Farms, Los Lunas, Belen and the county sheriff’s office.

National Guardsmen were deployed, as were a SWAT team and New Mexico state corrections personnel. Seven roadblocks were set up on routes as far south as Socorro. Alerts were broadcast on police radios across the state.

Lawmen in Valencia County searched in police cars and on horseback. Others scoured the region in three helicopters and two small planes. An airboat was launched to patrol the Rio Grande and bloodhounds were set loose, although reporter Ernie Mills factiously suggested that bird dogs might have been more appropriate in finding a convict who had used aerial flight to make his dramatic escape.

Mahoney was armed with the same Ruger handgun his girlfriend had used to hijack Charles Bella’s helicopter hours before. Mahoney stood 6 feet tall, weighed 175 pounds and sported two tattoos — a marijuana leaf on one hand and the word “Mom” on an upper shoulder. Photos of the suspect were distributed to all law enforcement officers employed in the hunt.

Hearing of events at Mid Valley Airpark, nearby residents were on high alert. Eleanor Love, who lived at the air park with her pilot husband, John, recalls going to her backyard vegetable garden and suddenly realizing that the escapee might well be hidden in the bushes by her fence.

Eleanor backed all the way to her kitchen door, “not daring to turn my back to anyone who might be there.” She wisely remained indoors the rest of the day. Her neighbors were equally prudent. Police created a special phone number (1-800-922-9221) for people to call if they observed suspicious behavior.

Residents reported sighting Mahoney at various locations throughout the afternoon and evening. A man fitting Mahoney’s description caused alarm when he was spotted near the Tomé Community Park. It turned out to be a false alarm when a sheriff’s reserve officer identified the suspect as a local resident.

Across the river in Los Chavez, neighbors reported hearing gunshots at about 3 p.m., but the police thought the sound might have been made by boys shooting bottle rockets. Forty-five minutes later, another man was seen hiding under a car, but he was not Mahoney.

A hitchhiker was also picked up on Interstate 25, although his ID verified that he was from out-of-state and was just passing through.

Meanwhile, Mahoney’s girlfriend, Beverly Shoemaker, was found hiding in a hanger at Midvalley, but refused to talk to police about her lover’s whereabouts, if she in fact knew it. She later vowed that her love for Mahoney was so deep that she would do the whole thing over again.

In the most comical episode of the day, a Camaro sped through a roadblock on Route 47. Police cars pursued, following the sports car into a parking lot south of the old Ranchers State Bank at the Valencia Y. The police discovered that the car belonged to a female bank employee who was apparently speeding because she was late returning to work after an afternoon break.

When no leads had panned out before sunset, authorities kept 25 searchers and two helicopters with search lights on duty well into the night. The searchers’ luck began to change on the Los Lunas bridge shortly after midnight.

Patrolman Roy Creek of the Los Lunas Police Department and Marc Lee of the New Mexico Mounted Police had been assigned to watch the bridge and the river bank below it. Creek, a 15-month veteran of the local police force, heard rustling in the brush before seeing Mahoney dash under the bridge.

Creek chased the fugitive several hundred yards before he finally subdued the convict. Fearing for his life, Mahoney shouted that he no longer had a weapon. Creek reported that Mahoney “didn’t give me any problem.” He was easily handcuffed and was soon handed over to correction officials for transit to Santa Fe.

Hailed as a hero, Creek modestly told reporters, “I think the mosquitoes and the heat got the best of him.”

Ironically, Mahoney was captured close to where fellow escapee Randy Lackey had been apprehended following his car chase through Los Lunas earlier in the day.

And so one of the boldest prison escapes in New Mexico history was over some 14 hours after it had begun. Local newspapers covered the escape in great detail, with maps, timelines, photos, editorials and even political cartoons in the Albuquerque Journal and the Albuquerque Tribune.

The incident also drew considerable national attention, including TV coverage by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News and by Tom Brokaw on NBC.

Reporters interviewed Beverly Shoemaker from jail in an eight-minute segment of Maury Povich’s TV show, “A Current Affair.” (Shoemaker later married Daniel Mahoney, but they eventually divorced.)

Newspapers from as far east as New York and as far west as Los Angeles carried the story, as did legendary radio journalist Paul Harvey. Harvey mistakenly reported that the escape took place in Arizona, perhaps forgetting that New Mexico exists, as many out-of-staters are prone to do.

A strange case became even stranger when state police went so far as to arrest Charles Bella, charging him with several counts of conspiracy and assisting in an escape from the state penitentiary, all felony crimes in New Mexico.

The authorities simply did not believe Bella’s account that his helicopter had been hijacked and that he had been an unwilling participant in both planning the escape and carrying it out.

Outraged by these charges, Bella insisted that he was innocent. The pilot protested that “I never got so much as a parking ticket in New Mexico.” In fact, he had just recently worked for the police, using his helicopter to help search for marijuana farms in Catron County. Catron County Sheriff Vern Mullins, now retired in Belen, remembers that Bella had found an enormous farm with about 15,000 marijuana plants, a large water tank and a circus-sized tent.

Eager to clear his name in the prison escape case, Bella hired the best legal talent he could find. Bella secured the services of the world famous lawyer — and fellow helicopter pilot — F. Lee Bailey.

In an aggressive defense, Bailey argued that Bella had been forced to participate in the escape and was, in fact, handcuffed to his instrument panel through most of the ordeal. In Bella’s admiring words, Bailey “really slammed it to them.”

After a nine-day trial, the jury deliberated just three hours before returning a not guilty verdict on Aug. 24, 1989. To this day, Bella claims that the jury would have come back sooner, but stayed out long enough for one last free meal.

Bailey was so sure of the trial’s outcome that he left town before the verdict was read. Bella traveled home to El Paso, making sure that he flew his helicopter over the Santa Fe state pen for spite.

Infuriated that the government had brought him to trial, Bella eventually sued two Custom Service agents for their use of excessive force against a victimized citizen.

Bella contested that government agents had endangered his life when they fired at his helicopter with semi-automatic weapons when they could plainly see that he was being held captive and was handcuffed as he attempted to take off from Mid Valley Airpark. Bella lost his case in 1992, but still insists that government agents should be made more accountable for their dangerous actions and damaging accusations.

The day prison convicts hijacked a helicopter and escaped to Mid-Valley Air Park will long be remembered in the annals of New Mexico penal history.

While not as famous as Billy the Kid’s escape from the Lincoln County jail on April 28, 1881, the helicopter caper was listed by the Albuquerque Journal as one of New Mexico’s 112 worst blunders or mishaps of the 20th century.

Reporter Dana Bowley was one of many Valencia County residents who vividly remembers the incident. Bowley recalls that the foiled escape occurred on his first day working at the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

After several hectic hours covering the story, Bowley told his new boss that “if it was going to be like this every day they were going to have to pay me more.” Bowley didn’t get the pay raise, but then no day was ever as exciting or as exhausting while he remained at the News-Bulletin.

Perhaps someday someone will see fit to place a historical marker at the Mid Valley Airpark to commemorate the events of 1988. If that day ever comes, the marker might read:

 


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