Although Lionel Clah’s bold escape from a prisoner transport van last week sparked a statewide manhunt and left parts of Albuquerque in the grip of fear, his experience was different.
“I had fun,” he told reporters.
That fun came to an end Saturday afternoon when a woman tipped off police that the escaped convict was in the Northeast Heights, and he was captured soon after.
When asked how he and his accomplice, convicted murderer Joseph Cruz, 32, managed to escape, he gave few details.
“Ten years in prison, you figure it out,” he said.
Albuquerque police spokesman Simon Drobik said a woman called police around noon and said she arrived at her apartment in the 4300 block of Morris NE, near Montgomery, and found Clah, 29, inside.
Police walked into the apartment and saw Clah’s red shirt on the floor and smelled cigarette smoke coming from behind a closed door.
They backed off and called the Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team. Clah walked out of the apartment just before the SWAT team arrived, and foothills area officers arrested him.
“He did state to us he didn’t want anybody else to get hurt,” Drobik said Saturday afternoon.
Drobik said the woman told police she and Clah had been at her apartment on Thursday. She then left the apartment and returned Saturday to find him still there. It’s unclear why she didn’t call the police sooner, and officers are investigating the woman’s story.
U.S. Marshals had offered a reward of up to $10,000 for anyone who provided information that led to Clah’s arrest. It’s unclear if she will collect the money.
Police began a frenzied search for Clah and Cruz on Thursday morning after the pair managed to slip out of a prisoner transport van in southeastern New Mexico on Wednesday night.
Authorities believe that they escaped when the van stopped for gas in Artesia on its way from a prison in Roswell to one in Las Cruces.
The men were in full shackles, but somehow got the chains off and made it to Albuquerque, where surveillance footage showed them grinning in a hotel lobby and wearing street clothes.
Citizens spotted the men throughout the city over the next few days, but authorities weren’t able to pin down their whereabouts until Friday afternoon.
That’s when probation and parole officers spotted Cruz at the corner of Central and University, one of Albuquerque’s busier intersections, and arrested him without incident.
But the manhunt for Clah continued into Saturday until his arrest.
He was escorted into the New Mexico State Police office as reporters peppered him with questions. He said he had spent some of his time “drinking” and offered an explanation for how he stayed free for days. “I’ve been walking by the cops, and they never seen me,” he said. “I just kept walking. Kept walking and running.”
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said authorities aren’t releasing details about how the men escaped, got out of their shackles and made it to Albuquerque.
When Clah was asked how he got his shackles off, he said, “They just fell off.”
After Cruz was arrested Friday, he told reporters that he picked the lock on his shackles.
State Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Armijo said Clah would be interviewed, then returned to Department of Corrections custody.
“We are focusing on the investigation itself now as to how these two escaped,” she said.
Department of Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said he’s glad the inmates were captured, but investigators still have to figure out how they escaped. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. The work’s just begun,” he said.
Both of the escapees have violent criminal pasts.
Cruz was sentenced to life in prison after being charged in 2006 for stabbing a man and beating him to death with a hammer in Raton. He also severely beat the man’s girlfriend in front of her child, according to previous Journal reports.
Clah allegedly shot a law enforcement officer in the face during a shootout and chase in 2007 in San Juan County. Both Clah and the officer were injured, but survived.
Clah is serving a 30-year sentence in connection with that incident, along with other charges.
Drobik said Clah’s capture is a big relief for law enforcement and the city.
“We’ve been running around with 30 calls today, everybody’s been seeing this guy all around the city,” Drobik said. “He just ended up in the foothills, and patrol officers took him into custody.”
Neighbors at the Montgomery Manor Apartments on Morris NE said they saw officers and deputy U.S. marshals flood the complex and block off the exits Saturday afternoon.
Authorities drew their weapons and asked a man to come out of the apartment with his hands up. Only later, after they recognized his facial tattoos from media reports, did neighbors realize the man being arrested was Clah.
“It was only a matter of time before they caught him because of that distinct tattoo,” said Amy Ortiz, who lives nearby and saw the arrest.
Ortiz said the complex has been locked down for SWAT standoffs in the past and she wasn’t surprised to learn that Clah had been hiding out in one of the apartments.
“My daughter and I had read the paper,” she said, “I just figured they’d end up here.”
Drobik said he’s thankful the manhunt ended peacefully.
“He’s an escapee, that’s about the No. 1 threat you can get. These guys are on the run; they’re unpredictable,” he said. “Thank God this guy stepped out and surrendered to us.”
Video of escapee Lionel Clah’s shootout with officers in 2007