How did notorious Idaho outlaw, Claude Dallas, escape?

Prison officials have always said killer Claude Dallas cut through two fences on Easter Sunday 1986. But investigators suspect a cover-up.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMarch 23, 2008 

Killer Claude Dallas made the FBI Ten Most Wanted list after escaping from prison in 1986. He was recaptured and returned to Idaho, above. In 2001, investigators probed whether the official account of the escape was true.

AP FILE

It is an Idaho legend: Infamous outlaw Claude Dallas escaped from prison on Easter Sunday 1986, cutting two fences and vanishing into the desert.

Dallas fled into the same sagebrush landscape where he had disappeared in 1981 after killing two Idaho Fish & Game officers. Fifteen months passed before the FBI captured Dallas the first time.

After his prison break, Dallas gave authorities the slip for almost a year, fanning his reputation as a canny Old West folk hero. His crimes and elusiveness spawned two books, a TV movie and courthouse groupies who called themselves the Dallas Cheerleaders.

But the legend of his escape — three years into a 22-year term in prison — may be a myth.

Law enforcement investigators now say the official account is probably false. Their skepticism is rooted in contradictory physical evidence, conflicting official accounts of what happened that Easter night and the disappearance of an independent review of the escape.

Rumors challenging the official account were widespread in law enforcement circles. The doubts were so serious that in 2001 the Idaho attorney general, Ada County sheriff and Idaho Department of Correction began an 18-month investigation of the escape.

Their theory: Prison officials faked the fence-cutting to cover up the fact Dallas outsmarted his keepers and simply walked out the front door with a group of visitors shortly before 8 p.m. on March 30, 1986.

The morning after, prison Warden Arvon Arave showed off precisely cut triangles in two chain-link fences to reporters and photographers, contributing another iconic image to the Dallas repertoire.

“Everybody said they knew he was going to escape,” Arave told the Los Angeles Times. Correction Director Al Murphy also fed the mystique: “You give Claude Dallas 6 miles and you might as well give him the country. Oh, well, we’ll find him. It might take a century, but we’ll find him.”

The reinvestigation of who really snipped the 27-inch- and 31-inch-wide holes ended inconclusively. The case was dropped in 2003. This story is the first public disclosure of that inquiry.

Investigators couldn’t prove their theory that Dallas walked out of the Idaho State Correctional Institution, but they told the Idaho Statesman that the facts don’t support the official account.

“My take is they screwed up, and he was able to walk out the front door,” said Ada County Detective Sgt. Pat Schneider, who worked the case after then-Ada County Sheriff Vaughn Killeen ordered the 2001 inquiry. “And somebody said, ‘Well, I better cover my butt and do something to make it look like he escaped the other way.’ I’ve never been able to prove it, but that’s my gut instinct.”

The supervisor of the reinvestigation was Mike Dillon of the attorney general’s office. A former FBI agent, Dillon has been a cop for 40 years.

He is the most cautious of the investigators, holding back from saying he believes a cover-up occurred. But Dillon doubts the official account: “I am not at all satisfied that we’ve got the whole story ... but at the same time we couldn’t come up with anything other than a lot of smoke. I remain skeptical.”

Dallas, now 58, could end the speculation. But he has never granted an interview and did not respond to requests from the Idaho Statesman to break his silence.

‘Kind of like the Kennedy assassination’

A month after the escape, Correction Director Murphy asked George Sumner, former warden at California’s San Quentin prison, to investigate. But Sumner’s report was missing for years. Prison officials even dug through a refuse pile known as the “bone yard” searching for it during the reinvestigation. It finally surfaced this month when the Statesman obtained it from another source. Sumner’s report supports the theory that Dallas walked out with departing visitors. Sumner concluded the visiting process “provides too much opportunity for escapes into the community.” His first recommendation was to reform visiting procedures, including stationing an officer outside the visiting room to operate a gate. Prison officials took the advice, building a security post on the walkway between the visiting area and the main gate.

Warden Arave, who retired in 1996, told the Statesman he still believes Dallas cut his way out. But he doesn’t rule out other theories. “It’s kind of like the Kennedy assassination, you know?” he said. “Who did it?”

This was no presidential assassination. The statute of limitations expired by 2001, barring prosecutions of Idahoans involved in the escape or a cover-up. Recaptured after 11 months, Dallas beat an escape rap in 1987 by convincing a jury he had to flee because his life was endangered by guards looking to kill him.

Why revive the story of a 22-year-old escape?

Sheriff Killeen and then-Attorney General Alan Lance authorized the investigation because a conspiracy to deceive the public and elected officials would be a serious breach of trust. The inquiry sought to correct history and discipline any offending Correction officials who remained on the job.

The Statesman filed public records requests with the attorney general, sheriff and Correction Department, and obtained about 1,000 pages of documents that provide the foundation for this story. Officials say some documents, including interview transcripts, have been lost. Other documents were withheld because they are exempt from the Open Records Law.

The investigation reached its climax in March 2003, when two key prison officers took lie-detector tests.

Investigators believed the men were pivotal: Lt. Wayne Nimmo was in charge the night of the escape and said he was present when the cut fences were discovered more than three hours after Dallas left. Sgt. George Baird was seen by another officer carrying bolt-cutters that night. Baird was the prison armorer, responsible for keeping weapons and tools.

Both denied involvement in a cover-up. A polygraph examiner found their answers “indicative of the truth.” The Statesman was not allowed to see the questions put to Nimmo and Baird because lie-detector tests are considered personnel records.

After 18 months, investigators couldn’t prove a cover-up. “We couldn’t go any further,” said Dillon of the attorney general’s office. They dropped plans to question the top officials at the time of the escape, Correction Director Murphy and Warden Arave.

’Wily mountain man’

Born in Winchester, Va., in 1950, Claude Dallas ducked the draft in Ohio and settled in the remotest corner of the Lower 48, the “ION” region of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. Handsome and coolly charismatic, he lived off his wits and the land as a trapper and cowboy.

On Jan. 5, 1981, Idaho Fish & Game officers Bill Pogue and Conley Elms tried to arrest Dallas for poaching at his camp on the Owyhee River. Dallas shot them first with a pistol and then put a rifle to their heads and fired again. He pitched Elms into the river and buried Pogue. Dallas was captured in northern Nevada 15 months later.

Charged with two murder counts, Dallas persuaded a jury sitting in Caldwell that he’d feared for his life. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and a weapons charge in 1982. Judge Ed Lodge gave him the maximum allowable sentence, 30 years.

The 1986 escape landed Dallas on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for the first time. On the lam, his whereabouts ranged from Nevada to Oregon, South Dakota to California, and he had plastic surgery in Mexico. Dallas testified that he paid $3,000 for the surgery, money he’d raised working odd jobs. He didn’t say what features were changed, but it appeared his nose was bobbed and chin lengthened.

The FBI caught him March 8, 1987, in Riverside, Calif. The figure dubbed a “wily mountain man” and “coyote-smart” by the media stood outside a convenience store with a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread.

After his acquittal for escape, Dallas served his time in Nebraska, New Mexico and Kansas. He completed the final weeks of his sentence at the North Idaho Correctional Institution and was released Feb. 6, 2005. He’d served 22 years, having shaved eight years with credit for “good time.”

Dallas obtained an Idaho driver’s license in Emmett a month later but surrendered it in August 2005 to obtain a license in Washington state, which he still holds. The law prohibits disclosure of his address.

Dallas sightings continue. Last fall, he was reportedly seen near Jordan Valley, Ore. Last summer, he was said to be working as a shuttle driver for river trips near McCall.

Now, we learn his escape is an unsolved mystery. Dallas may prefer it that way.

“He isn’t going to talk to you,” said Bill Mauk, who defended Dallas on the murder charges. “He just wants to fade back into the woodwork.”

Mauk can’t disclose anything Dallas has said in confidence, but he was aware of the theory that Dallas walked out with visitors and that officials covered up their blunder.

“I’ve heard a story like that,” Mauk said.

From Dallas? “I can’t say.”

‘Bought hook, line and sinker’

Along with Dillon, two other investigators did the bulk of the work on the 2001-03 inquiry.

Gary Deulen was the attorney general’s investigator who spent the most time on the case. Deulen now is chief deputy sheriff in Canyon County and has 27 years’ experience as a cop.

“I think Claude Dallas walked out on Easter Sunday,” Deulen said. “We’re asked to believe that instead of a slit, he cuts two perfect triangles; then after he’s free he runs across a fresh dirt field after a rainstorm leaving no tracks; he keeps the bolt-cutters or the wire-snips but loses his hat, and his glasses fall off of his face and into a glasses case in the parking lot (350 feet away)? It’s bizarre.”

Dillon has trouble believing that dozens of officers passed within 6 feet of one of the holes without seeing it. “It’s just not logical,” said Dillon. “To walk from the prison to the administration building you had to walk past the hole. And everybody knew there’d been an escape, but nobody saw the hole.”

In 2001, Randy Blades was assigned to represent the Department of Correction in the reinvestigation. A Marine reservist who served in both Iraq wars, Blades had just opened a new Office of Professional Standards. His job was to help overcome the agency’s reputation as a shop run by good old boys.

“The least logical way that this thing could have happened has been bought hook, line and sinker,” Blades said during one of the inquiry’s interviews in 2002.

Blades is now warden of the Virtual Prison Program, overseeing inmates in out-of-state, county and private prisons. He’s been with the Correction Department 20 years.

Now, Blades says, “I stand by that quote. ... The weight of the evidence lends itself toward the holes not being cut by the escaped inmate.”

‘Somebody didn’t want embarrassment’

George Baird is a 27-year Correction employee who now runs the community work center in Nampa. On the night of the escape, Baird was in charge of tools and weapons. He said he retrieved a pair of bolt cutters for another officer to cut a padlock on Dallas’ workshop locker. Baird said he can’t remember who got the tool but suspects it was used to slice the fence.

“I’ve believed for 20 years Claude Dallas walked out our front door,” Baird told the Statesman. “Somebody didn’t want embarrassment. Claude Dallas was a high-profile offender. Claude Dallas committed a hideous crime against people in law enforcement and angered a great big community.”

Baird said he believes “somebody up the command” ordered a subordinate to cut the fences to blunt criticism that official incompetence let the state’s highest-profile inmate go free. “I think they lied,” Baird said.

The cut fences went undiscovered for more than three hours after Dallas escaped. Capt. Jerry Redmon reported finding the holes shortly after he arrived from home late that night.

It was the job of corrections officers to patrol fences. Two officers conducted perimeter checks after the escape and turned up no holes. During a 10:30 p.m. shift change, dozens of officers passed the place where Redmon found the first hole, but none reported a breach.

“Redmon’s a damn captain,” Baird said. “Why is Redmon out doing a fence check?”

A week after the escape, Deputy Warden Larry Wright expressed his concern about the failure of line staff to find the holes. “It took the captain to come all the way from home to find where Dallas had cut the fences!” wrote Wright.

Prison records about the holes contributed to investigators’ suspicion of a cover-up. The master log doesn’t mention holes until a back-dated entry appears the following day, between 3:30 a.m. and 5:02 a.m., reporting “rectangular” holes found about 10:30 p.m.

Redmon’s report to Deputy Warden George Bernick is dated April 8. He wrote that Bernick reached him by phone at his home in Kuna at 10:35 p.m. and that Lt. Nimmo called at 10:40 p.m. According to the prison’s notification log, however,

Redmon also was contacted at 10:48 p.m.

Arriving at the prison, Redmon reported he was briefed by Nimmo. Redmon wrote that he asked if the fence northwest of the administration building had been checked. “I was informed that it had not,” Redmon wrote.

Redmon and Nimmo left the building and found two “triangular” holes. Redmon did not specify the time, nor did Nimmo in his March 31 report.

But Bernick’s April 7 report said Redmon found the holes at 11:04 p.m. If that is correct, and Redmon left home immediately after taking the third call at 10:48 p.m., he would have driven about 16 miles on winding rural roads, been briefed by Lt. Nimmo and discovered the holes, all in 16 minutes.

Asked how he could have accomplished so much so quickly, Redmon said, “I don’t know, but I did.”

Redmon told the Statesman he checked fences himself because “they were making searches inside the yard, not on that perimeter fence around the administration area.” The second hole, however, was at a junction of the perimeter fence and the administration fence, an area already searched by the two patrol officers.

Doubts also have been raised about whether Dallas had wire-cutters, as Warden Arave told the media. Lt. Jim Gibbeson, the officer then responsible for prison investigations, reported to his bosses that several inmates told him Dallas had wire-cutters.

But Gibbeson now says he had no solid evidence Dallas had such a tool and believes Dallas walked out the front door.

“I was out there thumping around thinking that Claude had cut a hole in the fence and took off,” Gibbeson told the Statesman. “I went along with the party. The party program was that he cut a hole in the fence and escaped. I didn’t have enough knowledge at that time to pin down what was happening. But I do today. I think there was some type of conspiracy after Claude left, not before Claude left.”

Gibbeson lost his job in 1990 when he was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor under 16.

‘There was no conspiracy’

Nimmo worked for corrections for 25 years and retired two months after his 2003 polygraph test. In a phone interview, he said, “I’d just as soon let it lie. One big reason I retired was because it was a big (screw) job to begin with, and people want to keep blowing (Dallas) into a hero, and he’s just nothing but a murderer.”

Asked if he knew anything about officers cutting fences, Nimmo said, “I don’t want to talk to you about it,” and hung up.

But Redmon, who retired in 1995 after 29 years, said, “There was no conspiracy. Didn’t happen.”

Former Correction Director Murphy laughed off talk of a conspiracy. “Listen to me,” he said from his office in Salt Lake City, where he now works as a consultant. “That is asinine. That is just ridiculous. It didn’t happen that way. It just didn’t.”

Added Murphy: “He went through the fence. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. It’s unquestionable.”

Murphy told the Statesman he doesn’t believe Dallas cut the two fences, but that a civilian accomplice did it.

“I don’t think Claude Dallas would have had time to cut it himself,” he said.

Murphy began as a prison guard in Massachusetts in 1969 and was Idaho’s correction director from 1983 to 1989. Known for his take-charge attitude, he arrived at the prison on Easter Sunday night with his .357- caliber magnum pistol.

In the days after the escape, Murphy told reporters, “It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed.” He complained of prison design flaws and that he’d recently lost 18 officers to higher-paying jobs.

Murphy now acknowledges that he and Lt. Jay Heusser walked over footprints that may have been left by Dallas.

“We’re looking for an escapee,” explained Murphy. “Protecting a crime scene is important in a homicide, but as far as protecting the obvious, I would have gone to the fence.”

Their disregard for evidence alarmed corrections officer Greg Claitor, who made two perimeter fence checks without finding any holes and then found Murphy and Heusser at the cut outer fence. Another officer, Sgt. Robert Hazzard, completed a foot patrol about an hour after Dallas escaped and found no holes.

‘He was an obvious escape risk’

Then-Gov. John Evans questioned the competence of prison staff and pressed for security fixes, including earmarking some of a $2 million appropriation for improvements. “He was an obvious escape risk,” Evans complained. “It’s obvious that we weren’t taking proper care to see that he didn’t escape.”

Among the improvements: the new guard shack to scrutinize visitors, a slowed-down visiting process, a tougher inmate-counting system and razor wire on the fences.

“The next guy that cuts his way through there will bleed to death on the other side,” Warden Arave said. Since Dallas’ getaway 22 years ago, there has been just one escape attempt. It failed.

Blades, the Correction Department investigator, said no employees were disciplined in connection with the escape. Murphy said the focus was on finding Dallas.

“The fact that an escape happened is what’s important.”

Dallas, of course, remains the missing puzzle piece. He was silent on the topic at both his trial and an internal prison hearing. Though acquitted in court, Dallas lost a year of “good time” in the prison disciplinary process for escape and was ordered to repay $159 for damaging state property — the fence.

Warden Arave said Dallas’ silence is central to the doubt.

“The problem is Claude Dallas never admitted anything,” Arave said. “He’s not talking.”

Arave said three explanations are plausible: “All three of those work: He cut it himself, somebody else cut it, or he walked out the front door. But at the time we were focused on the fence.”

Geneva Holman, Dallas’ Easter visitor, said Dallas has no interest in unraveling the mystery.

“I don’t think he really wants to do that,” she said. “He’s doing really good, he’s working hard, he’s put that behind him. I don’t think he wants a bunch more baloney in the newspaper.”

Investigators asked about interviewing Dallas but said he declined. Still, they have hope he will one day come forward.

“I was really hoping he’d talked to you,” Blades told the Statesman.

“My No. 1 motive was to find out what the truth was. We’ve got to find out what happened. It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

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