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.
Tag Archive for Arizona
The three Tison brothers, Donny, Ricky and Ray, were brought up to respect their father even though he was never around.
Because of the bizarre nature of this case, it is one of my all time favs.
What do you get when you combine a dope-smoking judge, a romantic interlude between a prosecutor and defense counsel, a “psychic tip” which leads police to the murderer, and a “functionally retarded” defendant with explosive personality disorder?
If you guessed a story so strange that not even a crack team of soap opera writers could dream up, you win the prize. If Brenna Bailey hadn’t died, the saga of Warren Summerlin would almost be funny.
The best place to start with this odyssey (that we will not call a long, strange trip) is at the beginning.
Brenna was a skip-tracer and bill collector for Finance America in Phoenix, Arizona. On a fine spring morning in 1981, Brenna decided to do some face-to-face collecting of some delinquent accounts, including one belonging to Summerlin’s wife. She set out on April 29 to visit her clients and after making a couple of stops, she disappeared.
Her boyfriend at the time, Marvin Rigsby, started doing some skip-tracing of his own after he was unable to get in touch with her and he learned that she had not returned to work as she had planned. He got the list of places Brenna planned to visit and started to investigate. Retracing her route, he spoke with Summerlin on the evening of the 29th, and was told that Brenna had been there, but left about 10:30 a.m. The woman who was next on the list of persons to be visited claimed Brenna never showed up. She had been home all day and had received no visitors.
Rigsby went to the police, who had also received a tip on their anonymous tip-line from someone who claimed that “the missing woman from Pacific Finance Company” had been murdered by Summerlin and her body rolled up in a carpet. The caller turned out to be Summerlin’s mother-in-law, who told authorities that her daughter “had ESP” and had sensed the crime.
Brenna’s car was discovered the next morning not far from the Summerlin residence by a paving crew that was attracted (or repelled) by a smell emanating from the trunk. The crew alerted a nearby store manager, who recognized the stench of decaying flesh and called police.
In the back of the car, police found women’s underwear, nylons, and shoes. Forcing open the trunk, the investigators found Brenna Bailey’s partially nude, bloody body, wrapped in a bedsheet. Her skull was crushed.
When the police showed up at Summerlin’s home with a search warrant, his first response to them was “I didn’t kill nobody.” He then asked, “Is this in reference to the girl that was at my house?”
“What girl?” the officer asked.
Summerlin described Brenna Bailey.
A search of the residence found numerous pieces of incriminating evidence and Summerlin’s wife identified the bedsheet found with the victim as one coming from the home. What role her real or imagined ESP had played in the tip was never explored and Mrs. Summerlin was not charged with any wrongdoing. When Summerlin was arrested, he asked to speak to his wife. In the presence of police, he made several incriminating statements.
So far, the case of Warren Summerlin was shaping up to be a simple, tragic and regrettably run-of-the-mill murder case. The evidence was all good and conclusive, the searches were legal, he had been Mirandized appropriately and treated well in custody. Law enforcement had done its job well, but the criminal justice system was about to have its way with Warren Summerlin.
Indicted on capital murder charges, Summerlin was assigned a lawyer from the capital crimes section of the state public defender’s office. After a couple of meetings with his client, the attorney requested a mental competency evaluation, which was scheduled. Summerlin’s first attorney subsequently left the public defender’s office, and another public defender was assigned.
In the summer of 1981, two psychiatrists examined Summerlin and found that he had suffered a brutal and cruel childhood, suffered from dyslexia and had dropped out of school in the 7th grade, but under the M’Naughten standard which determined a defendant’s legal sanity, Summerlin was sane when he allgedly committed the offense and reported that he was competent to stand trial.
As an aside, the psychiatrists found that Summerlin’s alcoholic mother beat him frequently and punished him by locking him in a room with ammonia fumes. At his mother’s behest, he received electroshock treatments to control his explosive temper. He grew up without a male role model after his father, a convicted armed robber, was killed in a shoot out with police. An electroencephalogram showed some dysfunctional processing in Summerlin’s posterior temporal area, but was not found to be sufficient to cause either epilepsy or temporal lobe seizure.
Psychological testing found that Summerlin was “deeply emotionally and mentally disturbed, unaware of the motives underlying much of his behavior, and unable, because of his problems, to exercise normal restraint and control once his highly unstable and volatile emotions are aroused.”
His formal diagnosis was organic brain impairment with borderline personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. Again, that’s not enough to support an insanity defense. A Maricopa County Superior Court Judge formally found Summerlin competent to stand trial in November 1981.
The open-and-shut case with a defendant who had a boat-load of mitigating factors was a lose-lose proposition for both the State of Arizona and the public defender. There was almost no chance Summerlin was going to beat the rap, but there was a good chance that under the sentencing scheme then in place in Arizona, a judge would find the mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating ones and Summerlin would not be sentenced to death.
Starting from the solid premise that the case did not warrant the extra time and expense connected to a capital case, the two sides started negotiating a plea.
On November 17, 1981, the prosecutor, whom appellate court records name only as “John Doe” and the defense attorney, known as “Jane Roe” reached a deal that would have Summerlin plead no contest to second-degree murder and aggravated assault, with 21-year term for Brenna Bailey’s murder, and a maximum 15-year term for an unrelated road rage incident which led to the aggravated assault charge. The sentences would be served concurrently and Summerlin would be required to serve at least 14 years.
The final approval, of course, was not Summerlin’s but the judge’s, and the deal allowed him to reject the stipulated sentence. Prosecutor Doe did not believe that Summerlin’s case was a capital offense, so even if the judge rejected the sentencing stipulation, the most Summerlin could have gotten was 38-and-a-half years.
Compared to a trip to the electric chair, Summerlin, functionally retarded or not, should have taken the deal and run. At first, he did so. He took the Alford (no contest) plea, but a few days later — he had not yet been sentenced — he filed a pro se motion to withdraw the plea and asked to fire his public defender.
On December 15, 1981, the judge in the case denied Summerlin’s motion, but advised him at that time that he was seriously looking at not accepting the stipulated sentence as recommended by the State. If the judge did deviate from the plea agreement, Summerlin could at that point withdraw the guilty plea and go to trial.
Defense attorney Roe, fearing that the judge was going to reject the sweetheart deal, and would push Summerlin into going to trial where they would recommend a death sentence, quickly moved to have the case transferred from that judge because of prejudice against her client. The senior judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court declined to do at a hearing on December 18.
All of this intense work together to wrap up Summerlin’s case overflowed into a boozy Christmas party romantic pas de deux between Doe and Roe the night the presiding judge declined to remove Summerlin’s judge.
The next morning, Roe went to her boss, ‘fessed up and said she could no longer ethically represent Mr. Summerlin. For reasons that will be made plain, Mr. Doe did not go to his boss. Ms. Roe would later testify that because of the circumstances, “it would be appropriate for another public defender to handle the case and take it to trial, since it looked like it might be a trial at that point.”
The public defender supervisor decided that the entire office might have been compromised and thus Summerlin would have to have special counsel appointed.
However, neither Roe nor Doe took any steps to remove themselves from the case, and it must have been a pretty awkward hearing before Judge Derickson on December 22, 1981. After a lengthy hearing, the judge accepted Summerlin’s request to withdraw the guilty plea.
On December 28, 1981, Roe and Doe met to discuss the situation. Roe was planning to withdraw, but she wanted Doe to remain on the case because he didn’t feel the case was a capital crime and was in favor of a lesser plea. They arranged for a hearing before the trial judge who held a private meeting with counsel and then in public appointed private attorney George Klink to represent Summerlin at his trial.
The dalliance between attorneys probably merited them a penalty from the Bar Association, but it had little impact on his case once the judge rejected the plea deal and new lawyers were brought in. The fate of their relationship remains one of the unexplored mysteries of their case. The hook-up would feature prominently in appeals, however.
The case was set for trial before Judge Philip Marquardt. A little more than a month later, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office assumed responsibility for prosecuting the case, and indicated that it was not going to accept any plea offers.
Klink met with Summerlin’s former counsel regarding his client’s psychiatric profile, but when it was clear that an insanity defense would not apply, he did not pursue this avenue further. The case went to trial, with Klink offering the theory that there was no premeditation involved. When the prosecution presented witnesses who provided evidence that Bailey had been raped by his client, Klink, on cross-examination, tried to refute the lack of rape evidence to bolster his position of no premeditation.
Without premeditation, there was no capital crime and Summerlin would not be executed. The case against the man was strong enough to leave just that single option.
The state did not present any psychological or psychiatric evidence, which limited Klink’s ability to bring up Summerlin’s background and emotional disability. In the end, the evidence was simply overwhelming and the jury came back with a guilty verdict on capital murder. Judge Marquardt set the matter for a sentencing hearing the following month.
At that time, in Arizona, the judge, not a jury, determined whether there were enough aggravating factors to merit the death penalty.
In the month between the verdict and the hearing, Klink’s representation bordered on ineffective. He did not meet with his client, nor did he meet with any of the psych experts that the Attorney General was planning to call.
During the sentencing hearing Klink did not introduce Summerlin’s side of the aggravated assault conviction. In that case, Summerlin’s wife had been struck by a car that left the road and he reacted by pulling a knife on the driver. The driver was not hurt, but simply pulling a weapon constituted aggravated assault. The conviction was used as an aggravating factor.
In addition, Klink provided no evidence of Summerlin’s horrendous childhood.
Judge Marquardt heard the state’s case on July 8, 1982. It was an extremely short hearing, after which Klink called a psychologist to the stand and prepared to question him. Summerlin objected to this, and Judge Marquardt called a recess. When court resumed, Klink rested without asking any questions. The judge then advised the parties that he would rule on the standard motion for a new trial and hand down his sentence on Monday.
However, Marquardt was a heavy marijuana user at the time, and would later admit that he was addicted to pot. His addiction had had an effect on the trial proceedings, a federal court later found.
“There are instances during pre-trial and at trial when Judge Marquardt exhibited confusion over facts that had just been presented to him,” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in one of Summerlin’s subsequent appeals. “He also made some quite perplexing, if not unintelligible, statements at various times during the trial.”
On Monday, Judge Marquardt forgot about the new trial motion and went right to sentencing. At that hearing, Summerlin, the “functionally retarded” and emotionally disturbed murderer, appeared to be the only person in the courtroom who had a clue about procedure, or who at least was not high or daydreaming about last weekend.
Judge Marquardt asked Summerlin if there was any reason why sentence should not be handed down. Klink responded that he knew of no legal cause. Summerlin said that there was a pending motion to vacate the verdict still unresolved. Judge Marquardt took a 5-minute recess and came back to the bench, denied the motion to vacate and sentenced Summerlin to death.
It was Judge Marquardt’s second death sentence of the day (curiously, both victims were named Bailey), and there is some indication that the judge confused the facts of the two cases. The other death sentence handed down that day was overturned on appeal because Judge Marquardt had allowed an unethical plea deal.
Summerlin appealed his sentence, and the Arizona courts upheld the conviction and sentence on appeal. He filed for habeas corpus relief in the federal courts and an entire course on appellate law could be taught based on Summerlin’s trips up and down the federal courthouse steps.
Suffice to say that on October 17, 2005, twenty-four years after Brenna Bailey was murdered, ten years after Summerlin might have been released had he accepted the plea deal (and two-thirds of the way through the maximum sentence that deal could have brought), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Summerlin’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
Judge Sidney R. Thomas summed up the court’s feelings about the case: “Extraordinary plotlines rarely end; they frequently reappear in sequels; thus this case returns to us from the Supreme Court to write the next chapter in this unusual saga.”