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Trial starts in N.M. deaths of Okla. couple

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt described the violent deaths of a vacationing Oklahoma couple as the result of two separate road trips that collided in New Mexico – one by Gary and Linda Haas, leaving a modest country home, and the other by three men escaping an Arizona prison and the woman who helped them.

“This case is about the targeting, carjacking, shooting and incineration of a husband and wife … by the man who’s brought us together in this courtroom,” he said in the prosecution’s opening statement in the trial of John Charles McCluskey, who faces the death penalty if convicted of committing the crimes and the case goes on to a sentencing phase.

Fouratt said prosecutors plan to call 50 witnesses and show 100 exhibits to prove their case.

Michael Burt, the San Francisco attorney who is the lead defense lawyer for accused carjacker and murderer McCluskey, 48, said the government cannot prove that his client was the person who killed the couple.

Burt said his view of the events is that it is about individuals seeking freedom. The Haases were seeking the freedom of the open road before their lives were tragically cut short. And the two primary witnesses – and his client’s co-defendants – were seeking freedom by cooperating with the prosecution.

He used graphs, charts and even a short video clip of an interview with McCluskey’s cousin and girlfriend, Casslyn “Cassie” Mae Welch, to underscore his message that jurors should take a long, hard look at Welch and Tracy Alan Province, who escaped with McCluskey and another inmate.

McCLUSKEY: Faces the death penalty if convicted

McCLUSKEY: Faces the death penalty if convicted

“Ask if the witnesses impress you as honest,” he said, directing them to look at drug use, memory, relationship with prosecutors and whether they made different statements out of court than they do in trial.

Welch and Province have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges and face possible life sentences.

George Gould, an investigations supervisor for the Arizona Department of Corrections, testified later in the day that Welch was able to go undetected as she snapped close-up photos of the privately operated Arizona prison where McCluskey was held.

Gould, who investigated the escape of McCluskey, Province and Daniel Renwick from the prison operated by Management and Training Corporation Inc., said Welch had visited McCluskey at the prison many times and had spoken to him often by phone. Then, on July 30, 2010, she stocked food, hygiene items and clothes into a Chevy Blazer and drove to the prison about 20 miles west of Kingman, Ariz.

She wore camouflage, approached the perimeter fence around dusk and threw wire cutters over it, Gould said. The three prisoners managed to evade detection as they left the building through an area used to train companion dogs, in part because sensors weren’t working at the time.

Somehow, Renwick got separated from the others in the dark, found the Blazer and took off separately.

Welch, McCluskey and Province, unable to find the Blazer, hijacked a tractor trailer on Interstate 40 after walking for eight or nine miles. At least one of the hijacked truckers, who were relieved of money and clothes but not harmed, is expected to testify today.

The escape was not detected for several hours, giving the three enough time to elude authorities.

Prosecutors have said the Haases, both 61, were targeted days later 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 I-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.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera is expected to take four months.

The courtroom was packed for the trial’s first day of testimony. Lines stretched outside the courthouse door by 8 a.m. for the scheduled 8:45 a.m. start time, and included jurors, defense attorneys and reporters.

Inside the courtroom, relatives of the Haases from Oklahoma occupied a front row.

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