LIVINGSTON, Texas – Michael Rodriguez remembers the exhilaration of newfound freedom when he hid in the back of a stolen truck as he and six of his buddy convicts staged one of Texas' most notorious prison breaks.
Then he recalls seeing his photo on national TV and grasping the reality that their Hollywood-style plan to rob a Nevada casino had gone terribly awry. He and his fellow fugitives were being hunted everywhere as the killers of a police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, at a store they robbed outside Dallas.
This week, Rodriguez is set to become the first of the six surviving members of the infamous "Texas 7" — all of them now on death row — to go to the death chamber.
"I'm glad we got caught, so no one else would get hurt," Rodriguez said, discussing with a reporter for the first time his involvement in the crime spree eight years ago.
"It was so thrilling that we actually got away with it," he said of the December 2000 escape from a maximum security prison. "But after Mr. Hawkins got killed, and I saw (ABC's) Peter Jennings on the TV news with our pictures, I thought: 'Oh my God, Oh my God. Am I in trouble!"'
After some six weeks of evading an intense manhunt, the fugitives were captured in Colorado. One of the seven killed himself as authorities closed in on him.
"I'm glad it ended when it did. It would have been a mess."
Rodriguez, 45, said he welcomes this week's execution, set for Thursday.
"I have a lot of people here telling me how unfair the system is," he told The Associated Press in what he said would be his first and last media interview. "At some point in our lives, you have to have some sort of accountability. I can't see how people in my situation deny that."
Rodriguez, who first went to prison with a life sentence for arranging the 1992 slaying of his wife in San Antonio, worked for more than a year to convince the courts he was competent to drop his appeals and volunteer for execution.
"I'm just moving forward," Rodriguez said from a small visiting cage at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, site of the state's death row. "Look. I'm guilty of what they said — everything."
And he said he wants the family of his former wife, Theresa, and the relatives the slain police officer "to know how truly sorry I am and I am willing to pay."
"I think it's a fair sentence," he added. "I need to pay back. I can't pay back monetarily. This is the way."
The slain police officer's wife, Lori Hawkins, calls Rodriguez's apologies "a little too late."
Rodriguez and six other inmates overpowered workers at the state prison system's Connally Unit near Kenedy in South Texas on Dec. 13, 2000, took the workers' clothes, grabbed guns from the prison armory and fled in a prison truck.
"It was an experience. It's real strange to think on that and how I got here," he said.
They drove to a nearby store, where Rodriguez's father had parked another truck for them. Raul Rodriguez later pleaded guilty to being involved in the escape plan.
They headed to Irving, a Dallas suburb, where ringleader George Rivas, a convicted robber serving 18 life terms, had a plan to rob a sporting goods store by posing as employees of its security service. They got uniforms from a used clothing store in Houston and radios from an electronics store holdup.
"George Rivas thought he planned everything," Rodriguez said.
While some gang members scrambled to find materials to restrain store employees and others gathered weapons, a woman outside noticed the activity and called police.
Hawkins caught the call. He'd been having Christmas Eve dinner with his wife and son a few blocks away.
Patrick Murphy, a convicted rapist who was posted as a lookout, tried to warn his fellow escapees that a police officer was driving into the parking lot but their radios "didn't pick up real well."
Rodriguez said that when he saw the police car he hid under sleeping bags they had stuffed with stolen guns and money.
"I just heard shots — pop, pop, pop. I thought it was the police. But no, it was us," he said.
Afterward, he went to the police car, where the officer appeared to already be dead.
The gang went to Colorado, were Rivas used cash from the store robbery to buy a big RV, and even went to a police supply store, posing as a lawman, and ordered body armor to be used in the Nevada casino heist.
On Jan. 22, 2001, a SWAT team surrounded the gang at a trailer park outside Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I'd never seen anything like that in my life," Rodriguez said of the police firepower.
Rivas, Rodriguez, Garcia and Randy Halprin were arrested. Larry James Harper, another convicted rapist, committed suicide. Murphy and Donald Newbury, a convicted robber, surrendered two days later in Colorado Springs.
He blamed the original crime that landed him in prison for life, the 1992 murder-for-hire slaying of his wife, on "the lust of a coed" he met at what then was Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
"My wife was a wonderful person and didn't deserve this. I fell for a coed. It was stupid. I sit in my cell and think: How the heck did I get here?
"But I was a willing participant. You can call it lust... I really thought I would get off, like a lot of people who are deluded."