ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Law enforcement officers swarmed northwest Albuquerque on Thursday night, going house-to-house with police dogs and flashlights during a manhunt for a convicted murderer and an alleged cop shooter who escaped the night before in southeastern New Mexico.
The men were still on the loose late Thursday night despite the massive perimeter search, which was called off before 1 a.m. Friday morning.
Just the night before, the two escaped prisoners, Joseph Cruz, 32, and Lionel Clah, 29, were in white paper jumpsuits and leg irons, their wrists shackled to belly chains around their waists, in a prisoner transport van headed to Las Cruces. But at some point during the trip, they made a break for it.
The two made their way to a southeast Albuquerque hotel, where surveillance footage from 4:30 a.m. Thursday shows them in a fresh pair of clothes and with no shackles.
The daring escape initially sparked a manhunt in southeastern New Mexico, complete with vehicle searches, checkpoints and helicopters monitoring from the air. The search later shifted to Albuquerque when police realized the men had made it there.
On Thursday evening, Albuquerque police spokesman Daren DeAguero said a driver saw the convicts driving in a car on Coors NW and followed them until police arrived. The escapees then ran away near Coors and Redlands.
Police set up a large perimeter and began a manhunt.
“Our search teams will be divided into grids. They will be searching on foot, they will be searching any abandoned properties, under vehicles and in backyards,” DeAguero said outside the scene Thursday evening. “They will be looking in all areas.”
Police have a woman in custody who was in the car with the men, but they said they’re still investigating how she is connected to them or why she was in the car with them.
Kassandra Juarez, who lives in the area, said her dogs started barking around 5:30 p.m. and she went outside and saw an abandoned Chevy pickup truck. Police then told her two escapees had fled through her yard.
Juarez said it was scary to know how close the fugitives came to her and her family.
“A bunch of kids, and my 7-year-old sister were outside playing,” she said. “My dad went and grabbed her right away.”
Dozens of officers had blocked off neighborhoods east of Coors while police helicopters circled above. Groups of Department of Corrections officers wearing camouflage uniforms searched the neighborhoods as residents filled nearby parking lots, waiting to be allowed back into their homes.
“We’re exhausting every means possible and manpower we have to conduct the search,” DeAguero said. “These guys are violent. They’ve shot at cops and murdered people. We have to find them.”
Many questions remain about how the prisoners escaped and made it to Albuquerque so quickly.
Department of Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said the van, which was hauling five prisoners from across the state to the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, stopped in Roswell and officers did a head count at 8 p.m. in which Cruz and Clah were accounted for. The van stopped in Artesia for gas, and that is the most likely spot where the prisoners made a run for it, Marcantel said.
They weren’t discovered missing until the van arrived in Las Cruces around 1 a.m.
Marcantel said corrections officers are still investigating how the inmates made it out of the windowless van and past two corrections officers. And it’s also unclear how they made it to Albuquerque, got their shackles off and found a new change of clothes.
“It’s going to be very important to take a real good look at ourselves to figure out how this happened and make sure we do our best to prevent it in the future,” Marcantel said.
State Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Armijo said police don’t know if the escape was pre-planned or if they had outside help.
“It definitely appears to be a pretty organized situation,” she said. “How exactly that transpired and what took place we do not know and are still looking into. But we have a lot questions.”
Both Cruz and Clah have violent criminal pasts.
Cruz is serving a life sentence after he was charged in 2006 for beating a man to death with a hammer.
He pleaded guilty in 2007 to first-degree murder, attempted murder and child abuse in the beating and stabbing death of Billy Chavez during a home invasion in Raton. Chavez’s girlfriend, Erica Martinez, was severely beaten in front of her child, according to previous Journal reports.
Four other men were charged in the incident, and investigators said at the time that they believed one of the attackers thought Chavez had stolen drugs from him.
Chavez suffered at least five blunt-force wounds to the head with a hammer and more than 20 stab wounds, police said. Martinez suffered a fractured jaw, broken wrist, bruised eye and stab wounds to the head and thigh.
Clah is also violent. He allegedly shot a deputy in the face during a shootout and chase in 2007 in San Juan County.
Dash camera video from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office captures the dramatic end to the chase, in which a sheriff’s deputy pinned Clah’s car and Clah opened fire. The deputy fired back through his windshield.
Both Clah and the deputy were injured but survived.
Clah is serving a 30-year sentence in connection with that incident as well as other charges.
Spotted in Albuquerque
After the men escaped, schools and a grocery store in Artesia went on lockdown, according to the Artesia Daily News. But around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, State Police sent out surveillance video images of the escapees in the lobby of the Hawthorn Suites hotel near University and Gibson SE taken early that morning.
The search then shifted to Albuquerque, where Department of Corrections officers were searching neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast Albuquerque on Thursday afternoon.
Officers later tracked two men they believe to be the fugitives to the northwest area, where they had set up a perimeter.
Armijo said tips had been flooding in and some of them were substantiated.
“Something happened down there, there was definitely a pretty quick turnaround from the time that these two escaped,” she said. “We want to make sure that people are cautious. We don’t know how these individuals ended up getting from there to Albuquerque.”
Armijo said given their violent histories, officers are on high alert. She said there’s a possibility they will threaten officers who try to arrest them.
“The law enforcement agencies are on high alert and high vigilance and we take these concerns very seriously,” she said.
Video of escapee Lionel Clah’s 2007 shootout with police