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Tison gang, on lam, terrorized state for 13 days 25 years ago

The Arizona Republic


The Arizona Republic

When murderers Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt escaped from the state prison at Florence 25 years ago after Tison’s three sons smuggled guns into a visitation area, it spawned 13 days of bloody mayhem, eight deaths and terror throughout the Southwest.

The search for the Tison gang was the largest manhunt in Arizona history.

The escape heaped scorn on an Arizona prison system where the warden’s favorite ego-stroking inmates pretty much had the run of the place. It was turned into a Hollywood, made-for-TV movie starring Robert Mitchum as Gary Tison.

But for Bill Pribil, now deputy commander of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office in Flagstaff, any mention of the Tison gang remains deeply personal.

Four days after the July 30, 1978, escape, Pribil, a young detective, was sent to a Flagstaff-area mobile home to interview a woman friend who had been on Greenawalt’s prison-visitation list.

No one in law enforcement had any evidence where the gang was. The bodies of John Lyons, a Yuma Marine, and three members of his family, including a 23-month-old toddler and teen-age girl, had not been found yet in the desert south of Quartzsite, riddled with shotgun pellets, in and near a car ditched by the Tisons.

Pribil said he knocked on the front door of the mobile home. There was no answer. But he heard the voices of two small children inside. So, he went around back and yelled, “Is anyone home?”

Again, no answer.

Good thing. Greenawalt was lurking behind the front door with a shotgun.

He had mistaken the plain-clothed Pribil, who had a concealed weapon and didn’t announce that he was from the sheriff’s office, for a salesman.

Pribil still gets chills when he hears of the prison interview of Greenawalt six years later by his old boss, Tom Brawley, who had headed an investigation of the escape.

“If I had known that (expletive) was a cop, I’d have blown his (expletive) head off,” Greenawalt told Brawley.

Trail of blood

That was the only close call that the Tison gang had with law enforcement during its nearly two weeks on the lam.

The quintet bolted from the Flagstaff area in a pickup bought by the female friend, leaving the Marine family’s vehicle behind. They tried to acquire a plane in eastern New Mexico to fly south of the border. When that failed, they drove north into the mountains of southwest Colorado, where Gary Tison and Greenawalt murdered a honeymooning Texas couple and stole their van.

The gang then made a beeline for the Tisons’ hometown of Casa Grande. They tried to run a late-night Pinal County sheriff’s roadblock south of the city.

Gary Tison’s oldest son, Donald, was killed in the ensuing shootout and Greenawalt and Ricky and Raymond Tison were taken into custody. Gary Tison escaped into the night but died of exposure shortly thereafter in the blast-furnace heat of the desert.

When Gary Tison and Greenawalt escaped together, it resulted in the perfect marriage of sociopathic savagery.

Tison had been imprisoned for most of his adult life and sealed the deal in 1967 when he produced a pistol while being transported to Florence after a court hearing and fatally shot prison guard Jim Stiner.

Greenawalt was sentenced to life after the 1974 slaying of a trucker who was sleeping in his cab at an Interstate 40 rest stop near Winslow.

Greenawalt drew an “X” on the trucker’s door near his head then shot a round through it. Brawley said Greenawalt later confessed to killing another trucker in Arkansas and a man in Colorado.

While in prison, Tison kept a strong psychological hold over his wife, Dorothy, and three young sons, who regarded him as a heroic figure, said James Clarke, a University of Arizona professor who wrote the book “Last Rampage, The Escape of Gary Tison.”

Both Dorothy Tison and her two imprisoned sons, Ricky and Raymond, refused to be interviewed for this story. Greenawalt was executed in 1997 for his role in the crimes.

“At the time of the breakout, this story had a lot of Wild West elements in it. The Tison family was not unlike the Clantons in Tombstone,” Clarke said. “But they became monsters in public perception after the bodies of the baby and teen-aged girl were found.”

A gripping fear

That was when fear gripped the state, said Jimmie Kerr, a Pinal County supervisor and former mayor of Casa Grande. Earlier, then-prison warden Harold Cardwell had assured everyone living in Arizona that they had nothing to fear from the escapees.

Despite their past crimes, Gary Tison and Greenawalt had been elevated to trusty status because of their close relationship with Cardwell and favors they did for him in the prison.

“We knew better. Everyone was very watchful and kept their children in off the streets while this was going on,” Kerr said. Memories were still fresh of the day Gary Tison fled to a Casa Grande neighborhood after killing Stiner, and a rolling gun battle with local police and Tison ultimately being captured in a downtown movie theater, Kerr said.

That was nothing compared with the fear in Yuma, near where the body of Lyons and his family were found.

“I remember talking to a bunch of older people who were born around 1900 and they were saying that this was the worst fear they had ever experienced,” former Yuma County Sheriff John Phipps said.

“They were even sleeping with guns in their beds. Everyone thought they would eventually go south to Mexico and that would have put them right back through Yuma had they stayed in the area of the killings.”

But Brawley said he knew better since the Tisons also had family living near Williams, and Greenawalt had a friend near Flagstaff.

“I thought after 24 hours had passed (after the escape) and they had not entered Mexico, and U.S. Customs told me that no unidentified small aircraft had crossed into Mexico, that they were en route to Flagstaff,” Brawley said.

Brawley added that he had pleaded with his superiors for manpower to do round-the-clock surveillance at a female friend’s trailer and Tison’s brother’s home but that the requests were denied.

Meanwhile, Clarke, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Arizona, said his latest take on the Tison gang case is that after a quarter century, Ricky and Raymond Tison, both now in their mid-40s, should be released from prison.

The brothers were sentenced to death but the sentences were reduced on appeal to life in prison.

“When you look back at what happened, they were 18 and 19 years old at the time with no criminal record. Gary Tison conned these boys like he did everyone else. They were surprised as much as the victims at what happened,” Clarke said. “Every prison official I talk to – and I take my classes up there every year – says these guys don’t belong here, that they are good and honest and stay out of trouble. Justice has already been served in their cases.”

But Brawley scoffs at that notion.

“Remember, the state prisons people also called Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt model prisoners. It could happen again,” Brawley said.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Citizen file photos

Captured fugitives Rick Tison (second from left), Raymond Tison and Randy Greenawalt are led to court after their arrest on Aug. 11, 1978.

This marked the end of the manhunt for escaped killers Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt, and Tison’s sons, Donald, Raymond and Rick.

Tisons terrorized state 25 years ago

Citizen file photos

ABOVE: Convicted killer Gary Tison was aided in an escape from prison by his sons Raymond Curtis Tison (above, right) and Ricky Wayne Tison. Days of the deadly manhunt recapped. See page 4D. (These photos ran on 1D)

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