GENTRY, Ark. — Law enforcement officers descended on back roads and densely wooded terrain in northwest Arkansas. Word spread that a local beauty salon may have been robbed by a couple who fancy themselves a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde and have eluded capture since a brazen Arizona prison break.
Officers in body armor and camouflage pored over maps as a helicopter whirred overhead Wednesday. A mobile command post took over the church parking lot. Frightened residents gossiped but were on guard, knowing the pair being sought was suspected in a bloody, multistate crime spree.
It may have been all for naught.
By evening, officials said their investigation gave them "no reason to believe" that John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch had pulled off the heist at the Kut & Kurl salon in Gentry, Ark.
The latest turn in the maddening manhunt left authorities from northern Montana to the Arkansas Ozarks still searching for two of the most-wanted fugitives in America, who have traversed far-off towns across the West and evaded police at every turn.
Benton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Gay said the extensive search around Gentry would continue. He acknowledged McCluskey and Welch could be anywhere, including Arkansas.
"They could be in Las Vegas, Nevada, they could be in Akron, Ohio," he added.
Salon owner Joyce Cook was alone at her business Wednesday morning when a couple entered and the woman said she wanted a haircut. Then the man pulled a gun, tied her up with rope and stole money. Authorities have declined to say how much.
"I just burst (out crying), before they even left, I was boo-hooing so hard," said Cook, who in 35 years of running her business had never been robbed.
Gay said Cook was shown photographs of the fugitives. And even though officials believe they have changed their appearance — Welch dyeing her hair blond and McCluskey dyeing his black — Cook was certain they were not the couple in her shop.
Gay also said that although at least one of the fugitives had family in the area at one point, "that individual has since moved" and neither McCluskey nor Welch still have relatives in Gentry.
Investigators had thought they may have boxed in the escaped Arizona inmate and his fiancee — who also is his cousin — near Glacier National Park in recent days. Federal, state and local authorities began checking vehicles at the border and patrolling tiny towns near the park on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were notified as well.
The saga began July 30 when McCluskey and two fellow inmates broke out of a medium-security prison in the Arizona desert. Authorities believe Welch, 44, threw wire-cutting tools over the fence that allowed the criminals to slice their way through a fence.
Two of the escaped inmates already have been caught, including one who captured after a shootout with law enforcement in Colorado and one who was spotted hanging out and singing hymns at a Wyoming church.
New Mexico authorities have said forensic evidence links the group to the deaths of an Oklahoma couple whose bodies were found in their charred camper in eastern the state a week ago. The badly burned skeletal remains of Linda and Gary Haas — both 61 and from Tecumseh, Okla. — were found in a charred camper last Wednesday on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.
McCluskey, 45, was doing 15 years for attempted murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm. He also served 14 years in Pennsylvania state prisons for a string of convenience store robberies in April 1992.
The mug shots of McCluskey and his lover have become a daily fixture in newscasts around the nation as authorities have found themselves spending a lot of time sifting through tips that turned out to be false, possibly delaying them from finding credible information.
"They're continuing to come in, it's a matter of prioritizing them. The problem with the sheer number is it may take a little while to get to a certain lead," said Rod Ostermiller, Montana's acting U.S. Marshal.
The Glacier County Sheriff's Office, which has been helping the U.S. Marshal's Service in the search, said Good Samaritans have been phoning in many tips that have proven to be dead ends.
"We've had multiple, I guess you could call them leads, that we've checked out in the area. In layman's terms, none of those have panned out," Glacier County Undersheriff Jeff Fauque said.
Another prisoner who escaped with McCluskey, Daniel Renwick, was captured Aug. 1 after a shootout in western Colorado. Prosecutors charged Renwick, 36, in court on Wednesday with three counts of attempted first-degree murder, vehicular eluding and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.
The third fugitive, Tracy Province, appeared in a court in Cody, Wyo., on Tuesday and waived his right to fight extradition to Arizona. Province was caught Monday as he walked in sleepy Meeteetse, Wyo., steps from a church he had been visiting.
The Arizona attorney general's office on Monday charged McCluskey's mother and ex-wife with helping the inmates after they escaped.
Gentry is about 1,600 miles from St. Mary, Mont., where the couple may have been spotted Sunday, but Gay also noted the salon robbers didn't appear to have a vehicle.
"They were on foot as best as I could discern," Gay said.