ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Joseph Cruz was hiding in plain sight.
A massive, multi-day manhunt for the convicted murderer had officers combing the entire state after he and another man escaped a prison van in Southeast New Mexico on Wednesday night.
But it was a team of probation and parole officers who stumbled across him at one of Albuquerque’s busiest intersections – Central and University – Friday afternoon in broad daylight that led to his arrest, letting authorities breathe at least a momentary sigh of relief.
“It was a short moment of relief, but then we’re still back at it,” State Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Armijo said Friday night. “We’ve still got a ways to go. But, yes, we’re making progress.”
She was referring to the ongoing hunt for the man who escaped with Cruz, 29-year-old Lionel Clah. It’s unclear if he is still in the Albuquerque area, and authorities are searching for him high and low.
Cruz, 32, who was walked past news reporters at the State Police office after his capture, said he didn’t know where Clah was.
“I got busted,” he told reporters, insisting that nobody had helped him escape. “I did it all myself. I picked the lock. Nobody helped me. I got busted. If I’d had help, I would have been gone.”
He didn’t say how he got from southeastern New Mexico to Albuquerque. “This way, that way,” he said.
State Police interviewed him Friday night, and the Department of Corrections then took him back into custody.
Armijo said he will face new charges in connection with the escape, but investigators are still figuring out what exactly happened and compiling a case against him.
“Once the investigation is complete, we’ll work with the district attorney to determine what charges may be filed, but it will happen at a later date,” she said.
New Mexico State Police said before 10 p.m. Friday that they had also arrested Cruz’s sister, Olivia Cruz, 38, on a warrant for drug possession. She is being held without bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Armijo said Olivia Cruz hasn’t yet been charged in connection with her brother’s escape, but she is being investigated for her possible role in helping him.
“We are definitely looking at possible involvement. We just don’t have anything set in stone right now,” Armijo said. “We are going to be very involved in this case with potential family members and friends.”
University of New Mexico Police sent out a warning to students to be on the lookout for Clah, too.
“The other escapee, Lionel Clah, is still at large but could possibly be in the area,” police said. “Call police immediately if you see someone fitting (his) description.”
Throughout the day Friday, authorities’ dragnet seemed to be growing.
Two hours before Cruz’s capture, U.S. Marshal for New Mexico Conrad Candelaria said the search was going nationwide, in a news conference with State Police and DOC. He said authorities had received tips that the suspects might be as far away as California or Texas.
“This has entered a new stage of the investigation,” Candelaria said. “It’s going to require a very complex, very comprehensive network capability that’s going to rely on many different sources of information.” The U.S. Marshals Service was offering a $10,000 reward for tips leading to Clah’s arrest.
Both men were also put on New Mexico’s most wanted list after they escaped from the prison transport van near Artesia late Wednesday.
The two men, who had been in shackles, managed to make their way to the Albuquerque area. They were seen in hotel surveillance video wearing civilian clothes and without shackles early Thursday.
They eluded authorities Thursday despite a massive manhunt that intensified after Clah was recognized by a driver in Albuquerque on Thursday evening.
The driver saw Clah, who has a distinctive feather tattoo on his face, in a car on Coors Boulevard, north of Interstate 40 around 5:30 p.m. and called police. Officers followed him until he ditched the car he was in.
Authorities set up a large perimeter near Coors and Redlands NW, complete with the SWAT team, police helicopters, dogs and a hovercraft. They went door to door, searching every yard in the area, which is bordered by the bosque on one side.
But they came up short. Authorities called off the search around 1 a.m. Friday.
Law enforcement detained a woman who was in the car but released her. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas wouldn’t detail what the woman told investigators, but he said they believe she didn’t know the escapees.
Kassetas said police believe Clah was in the vehicle.
“Eyewitness descriptions put Clah in that vehicle,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told the news conference Friday afternoon. “But until we process it for DNA and fingerprints, I can’t tell you for 100 percent certain that it was him. We’re making no assumptions in this case.”
Armijo said tips continue to flood in.
“We’re getting all kinds of information,” she said. “A lot of it has not panned out. But people are out there and alert, and that’s what we want.”
Video of escapee Lionel Clah’s shootout with officers in 2007