Things I Should Throw Out: Readers Outraged By Tison Escape

by Derrick Bostrom

Back in August 1978, convicted murderers Gary Tison and Randy Greenwalt broke out of the state prison in Florence, Arizona, assisted by Tison's three teenage sons, Ricky, Donald and Raymond. Their inept plan to slip into Mexico began unraveling the minute they left the prison grounds. After a hectic week-long scramble, during which they killed six innocent human beings and one defenseless chihuahua, the fugitives were caught just thirty miles from where they started. Their desperate swath cut a ragged figure-eight through three states, starting in Florence, sneaking down to the Yuma area, then all the way up to Flagstaff, down through the White Mountains and over to Clovis, New Mexico, then up to the four corners area. From there, they returned to Tison's home town of Casa Grande, where they ran into a police road-block. After a gun battle that killed one of his sons, Tison fled into the desert. He endured over a week of searing summer temperatures before suffering the same fate he consigned to the chihuahua: an agonizing death from exposure.

I was about Ricky's age at the time. I also spent that week avoiding the police, passed out on a porch swing in my best friend's backyard. I had a little trouble following the the Tison story. I had it mixed up with the spectacular murder of reporter Don Bolles two year earlier. (Little did I know how intertwined the two incidents actually were.) Most folks didn't share my difficulty, however. Already stirred up by the controversy over the constitutionality of the death penalty, as well as extensive press coverage of prison corruption and penitentiary riots, the public howled for blood.

Recently, while looking for more food for the beast (i.e this blog), I came across an old letters page from our local newspaper, published shortly after the fugitives' capture. Edited for brevity and selected to exclude any dissenting opinion, the page portrays a public squarely in favor of sanctioned governmental murder. To a pica, the page is an overwhelmingly vitriolic demand for the ultimate penalty. Abstract debate is nowhere to be found.

Sure enough, after their capture, the surviving fugitives were summarily whisked off to death row. Greenwalt was certainly psychopathic; he had liitle chance of avoiding the apparatus. But as it turned out, Ricky and Ray were just a couple of sheepish developmentally challenged kids swept up in a dysfunctional atmosphere fashioned by a psychologically abusive father and their mother's cultish worship of her husband. In the end, the US Supreme Court commuted their death sentence to life imprisonment.

My own interest in the story lead me to a book by University Of Arizona professor James W. Clarke, "Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison." Clarke paints a fascinating picture of a modern day Barker clan descended of failed subsistence farmers and the disenfranchised poor. Clarke details the whole mess, leaving little doubt that everyone involved was doomed from the start. There is enough tragedy to go around -- he even reserves a little for the killers themselves, particularly oldest son Donnie. Though well on his way to escaping the hellish circumstances of his upbringing, Donnie was ultimately unable to resist the pull of family obligation. In the end, he wound up a victim of a disaster he tried to circumvent (if only half-heartedly). Ironically, he was the only brother to pay the full price.

Mainstream media interest in the story peaked in 1983, when Robert Mitchum portrayed Tison in a 1983 made-for-television movie, "Killer In The Family," which also featured James Spader and Eric Stoltz. In its review of the film, the New York Times wondered why anyone would care about such a collection of low-life. But I've come to see the Tison saga as an epic tale of rage and incompetence in the margins of society and on both sides of the law. Pick up the book if you ever get the chance. You can check out my letters page for free right now: