ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An Arizona inmate who escaped from prison committed heinous crimes in the killings of an Oklahoma couple carjacked at a highway rest area while traveling through New Mexico, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
John McCluskey is facing 20 counts in the 2010 carjacking and slaying of Gary and Linda Haas, of Tecumseh, Okla. He’s the last of three defendants to be tried in the case. The other two pleaded guilty and will likely testify during the trial.
Prosecutor Greg Fouratt said “unspeakable crimes” resulted from the tragic collision on Aug. 2, 2010, of the Oklahoma couple’s annual camping trip to Colorado with the flight of McCluskey, a fellow escapee, and an accomplice.
“Ultimately this case is about the targeting, the carjacking, the shooting to death and the incinerating of a husband and wife,” said Fouratt, who said the Haases were married more than 40 years.
A defense attorney for McCluskey was also giving his opening statement Monday.
Despite admissions made to authorities following his arrest, McCluskey’s defense team says he didn’t kill the Haases and didn’t intend for them to die that August day in eastern New Mexico.
Prosecutors plan to prove otherwise. They have indicated in court documents that as many as 100 witnesses could be called and they have more than 1,000 exhibits to show the jury, including photographs, and hours of audio and video.
An audience that included family and friends of the victims packed the courtroom for Monday’s opening statements. The trial is expected to last up to four months.
It took nearly three weeks for attorneys to settle on a jury of eight women and four men. Dozens of prospective jurors were questioned about everything from their understanding of the justice system to their opinions about the death penalty.
McCluskey made no secret of his desire to steer clear of a trial and the death penalty. He agreed to plea negotiations earlier this year, but federal prosecutors said they were intent on moving toward trial.
Prosecutors have said the Haases, both 61, were targeted for their pickup truck and travel trailer when they stopped at a rest area near the Texas-New Mexico state line.
According to court documents, they were forced at gunpoint to drive to a desolate spot off of Interstate 40, where they were then ordered into their trailer and shot. The truck and trailer were then driven miles down a series of dirt roads to a more remote location. The trailer was unhitched and torched, with the Haases’ bodies inside.
A plume of black smoke is what led a rancher to the crime scene. Authorities were then called in.
During Fouratt’s opening statement in court Monday, the prosecution displayed photos of the fugitives’ weapons and of the burned-out trailer.
To provide timelines for the separate trips of the victims and the fugitives, the prosecution showed images from surveillance cameras at various locations.
McCluskey was one of three prisoners who escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., in July 2010, with the help of his cousin and fiance, Casslyn Welch. One of the inmates was quickly captured after a shootout with authorities in Colorado, while McCluskey, Welch and inmate Tracy Province embarked on a crime rampage that sparked a three-week nationwide manhunt.
Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from the Haases’ deaths. Both face life sentences.
McCluskey was previously serving 15 years in Arizona for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.