The three Tison brothers, Donny, Ricky and Ray, were brought up to respect their father even though he was never around.
It wasn’t like Gary Tison had abandoned his family — everyone knew exactly where he was. Gary was serving two consecutive life terms in the Arizona State Penitentiary for killing a prison guard during an escape attempt.
Even though Gary was a career criminal who spent most of his adult life behind bars, he commanded the love and respect of his three boys and his wife, Dorothy, who he met while he was serving time for armed robbery and auto theft.
He was apparently quite the charmer, people around Casa Grande, Arizona said, which was why Dorothy was more than willing to stand by her man while he marked time in an Arizona prison and why his sons would one day risk everything to break him out.
Dorothy and Gary married in 1957 and a year later Dorothy presented Gary with his first son, Donald. Richard and Raymond followed soon after. With a family to support, Gary tried to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but it wasn’t really in his nature. In 1961 he was arrested for a series of robberies; this time he was handed a 30-year stretch.
But Gary’s charm had worked its wonders on Dorothy, who made it her life’s mission to free her man. Countless letters and visits to state officials eventually paid off, and after serving just five years of that sentence, he was granted parole on July 1, 1966. Freedom would last less than a year. In April 1967 Gary was arrested for smuggling and ordered back to prison on a parole violation.
Gary had always been a rabbit. Before his first felony arrest in 1951 he led police on a high speed chase and before his trial on the 1961 robberies he managed to escape for a day from the county lockup. Heading back to prison as a parole violator, Gary knew this would be his best chance to bolt in a long time coming.
A mile away from the prison Gary managed to grab the pistol of corrections officer Jim Stiner. He shot Stiner in the chest, killing him. Gary made his getaway in the prison car, but was arrested a day later in a Casa Grande movie theater after a wild shoot-out.
For that murder Gary received two consecutive life sentences.
Dorothy remained loyal to her husband and taught her sons to respect their father, somehow convincing the boys that the murder was a setup. They visited the prison almost weekly while growing up and developed the view that poor Gary Tison was simply a misunderstood victim of the system.
With nothing but time on his hands, Gary waited until the moment was right to make his move. After nearly a decade behind bars for the Stiner murder, Gary — a violent killer with multiple escape attempts — was elevated to trusty status and was put into a cell with another trusty, Randy Greenawalt, who was serving a life term for the murder of a truck driver near Winslow in 1974. In the course of that killing, Greenawalt drew an X on the window of the sleeping trucker’s cab as a target and fired through it. He was also suspected of at least two other killings in the Southwest.
Sometime in 1977 Gary decided the time had come to make his escape. Through family he tried to enlist the help of a pilot who would pick him up and take him to Mexico, but that grand plan went nowhere.
Gary turned to his family. In late July 1978 Gary enlisted the help of Raymond and Dorothy, who began to amass a cache of weapons for the break-out.
The day before the escape Ray and Gary brought Donny and Rick in on the plan. Ray later claimed they had been assured there would be no violence.
“I just think you should know when we first came into this we had an agreement with my dad that nobody would get hurt because we wanted no one hurt,” he told police.
Some supporters of the family say this demonstrates just how well Gary had brainwashed his sons. The word of a man serving a pair of life sentences for killing a prison guard during an escape is no good, but the boys did not see it that way.
“They were 18 and 19 years old at the time with no criminal record,” James Clarke, a University of Arizona professor told the Arizona Republic in a 2003 retrospective on the Tison prison break. Clarke wrote the book Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison. “Gary Tison conned these boys like he did everyone else. They were surprised as much as the victims at what happened.”
July 30, 1978 was a typical hot, dry Florence, Arizona, summer day. It was visiting day at the Arizona State Prison, and like they had done so many times before, the Tison boys showed up early to spend the day with their father.
While Ray went on ahead, Donny and Rick carried in an ice chest. The CO at the gate was distracted for a moment and when he looked back at the boys to prepare to search the chest, he found himself staring at the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun.
Gary and Randy Greenawalt grabbed a couple of more weapons from the ice chest and quickly rounded up everyone in the visiting area. They locked the guards, other prisoners, and their visitors in a supply closet and were gone from the prison grounds in a matter of minutes.
The escapees left in a green Ford sedan which they ditched about a mile away from the prison in favor of a white Lincoln Continental provided by one of Gary’s relatives and left in the parking lot of a nearby hospital.
They headed toward a remote safehouse to lie low for a while. Their luck began to run out in the form of a badly leaking tire which they exchanged for the spare.
News of the Tison prison break spread quickly, but corrections department officials attempted to calm jittery nerves by reminding people that the men, though they were convicted killers, were “model prisoners.”
“We knew better. Everyone was very watchful and kept their children in off the streets while this was going on,” Jimmie Kerr, a Pinal County supervisor and former mayor of Casa Grande told the Republic.
One group that was paying no attention to the news was Marine Sgt. John Lyons, 24, his 24-year-old wife, Donnelda, their 2-year-old son Christopher and 15-year-old niece, Theresa Tyson. The family was driving from Yuma to Omaha, where John was planning to attend law school once his service with the Corps was finished. Terri Jo, who lived with her family in Las Vegas, was enjoying a summer vacation trip with her aunt and uncle. She brought her pet Chihuahua along for the ride in the Lyons’s Mazda.
On July 31, the two groups were converging on Flagstaff when fate brought them together and the blood began to flow. The back roads of Arizona had taken their toll on the Lincoln and in the desert near Quartzite another tire failed. This time there was no spare.
The group decided to flag down a passing motorist and steal a car. Raymond stood out in front of the Lincoln; the other four armed themselves and lay in wait by the side of the road. One car passed by without stopping, but then an orange Mazda driven by John Lyons drove by, made a U-turn, and stopped to render aid.
In the moonlight, John stood by Raymond and examined the blown tire when he felt a shotgun poke him in the back. Suddenly the family was surrounded by five armed and desperate men.
The Lyons family was forced into the backseat of the Lincoln. Ray and Donny drove the Lincoln down a dirt road off the highway and then down a gas line service road farther into the desert. Gary, Ricky, and Randy followed in the Lyons’s Mazda.
They parked the two cars trunk to trunk and the Lyons family was ordered to stand in front of the Lincoln’s headlights while the Tison gang transferred their belongings from the Lincoln into the Mazda.
Testimony would later reveal that Gary told Raymond to drive the Lincoln still farther into the desert. Raymond did so, and, while the others guarded the Lyons and Theresa, Gary fired his shotgun into the radiator, presumably to completely disable the vehicle.
The hostages were then escorted to the Lincoln and again ordered to stand in its headlights.
Ricky Tison told authorities later that John Lyons pleaded “Jesus, don’t kill me.” and that Gary said he was “thinking about it.” John asked the Tisons gang to “give us some water…just leave us out here, and you all go home.”
For a moment it looked like Gary was going to agree and he told his three sons to go back to the Mazda for a container to hold some water. Raymond later explained that his father “was like in conflict with himself…. What it was, I think it was the baby being there and all this, and he wasn’t sure about what to do.”
Then Gary appeared to make up his mind.
Ricky said that the brothers returned from the Mazda and gave the water jug to Gary who then, with Randy, went behind the Lincoln. They spoke briefly, then raised the shotguns and started blasting.
Sixteen shots were fired. John Lyons managed to stagger some distance from the Lincoln before collapsing. Theresa made it far enough that it took searchers several more days to find her body. The chihuahua was found next to her, dead from exposure. Knowing that she was fated to die, Theresa took the dog’s collar and fastened it around her ankle so whoever found her would be able to identify her remains.
Leaving the Lyons family to their fate, the Tison gang headed toward Flagstaff, where Greenawalt had a friend.
Kathleen Ehrmentraut was contacted by Donald Tison on the afternoon of the day following the Lyons murders. She later met Greenawalt at her home about 9:00 p.m. and there was a discussion about their use of her son’s truck. On August 3, 1978, Greenawalt returned with Donny and told Ehrmentraut to go to town and buy them a vehicle. She left Greenawalt at the house to watch her grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Detective Bill Pribil of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department arrived to interview Ehrmentraut, who had been on Greenawalt’s prison-visitation list.
The plainclothes detective knocked on the front door of the Flagstaff-area mobile home but received no answer. After looking around a bit, he left.
Pribil did not know it, but Greenawalt was hiding inside the mobile home armed with a sawed-off shotgun. Greenawalt said he mistook Pribil for a salesman. It was Pribil’s lucky day.
“If I had known that (expletive) was a cop, I’d have blown his (expletive) head off,” Greenawalt told investigators later.
Ehrmentraut and Donny returned later with a blue, four-wheel drive Chevy pickup.
A day after the Tisons left Ehermentraut’s trailer and several hundred miles east in Amarillo, Texas, James and Margene Judge were just starting their honeymoon. They were headed to Colorado for a week of fly fishing. Margene checked in with her parents from the road and reported all was well. That was the last time anyone heard from the newlyweds.
Shortly after the phone call, the Judges encountered Greenawalt and the Tisons, who needed their van and were willing to kill to get it. James and Margene’s honeymoon ended in a shallow grave outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
With the law hot on their heels, the gang turned back south toward the Mexican border. Around the same time, a game warden came across the Lyons crime scene. Donna Lyons and her son Christopher were inside the Lincoln. John Lyons’ body was a short distance away. Theresa was nowhere to be found and at first authorities suspected that she was a hostage.
“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,” Professor Clark told the Republic. “But they became monsters in public perception after the bodies of the baby and teenage girl were found.”
The Tisons drove back toward Casa Grande in Pinal County, where the law was waiting for them.
Driving the Judges’ van, they plowed through a roadblock on the Papago Indian Reservation exchanging shots with the police. Donny Tison was shot to death when the stolen van smashed through a police roadblock, failed to negotiate a curve, crashed and burst into flames. Ricky, Ray, and Randy Greenawalt made it to a nearby field before being captured. None of them was injured. Officers said the van contained four pistols, two sawed-off shot guns and a rifle.
Gary Tison got away. For eleven days he was still at large in the desert, and considered the most wanted criminal in America. His body was eventually found about a mile from the roadblock.
Gary had burrowed into a thicket and had died of starvation and exposure.
Greenawalt and the surviving Tison brothers were all convicted of the Lyons/Tyson murders and sentenced to death. Eventually, after a long legal debate over whether the sons could be executed even though they had not pulled the trigger or agreed that the hostages would be killed, the state of Arizona re-sentenced them to life in prison.
Ricky expressed remorse for the Lyons murders soon after he was captured.
“It took us by surprise as much as it took the family (the victims) by surprise because we were not expecting this to happen. And I feel bad about it happening,” he said. “I wish we could [have done] something to stop it, but by the time it happened it was too late to stop it. And it’s just something we are going to live with the rest of our lives. It will always be there.”
Greenawalt was executed in 1997.
Anything for Dad
The three Tison brothers, Donny, Ricky and Ray, were brought up to respect their father even though he was never around.