Ariz. fugitive's accomplice became police informant in drug smuggling case weeks before escape
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – An Arizona fugitive's accomplice was acting as a drug mule for a white supremacy group and agreed to become a police informant weeks before she helped him escape from prison, authorities said Friday.
Casslyn Welch and John McCluskey, who is Welch's fiance and cousin, are now considered among the most wanted fugitives in America. Authorities say Welch helped McCluskey and two other men escape from the Arizona State Prison in Kingman on July 31 by throwing wire cutters over a fence. Daniel Renwick and Tracy Province have since been captured.
Welch was visiting McCluskey at the medium-security prison in June when a random search of Welch and her vehicle turned up marijuana, heroin and drug paraphernalia, Mohave County sheriff's spokeswoman Trish Carter said.
Welch wasn't jailed because she agreed to become an informant, and she provided information about the suppliers of the drugs, Carter said. Welch told investigators she was being paid by members or associates of supremacists to smuggle heroin into the prison as she had successfully done three times before. She declined to say who the items were intended for at the prison.
Fidencio Rivera, chief deputy U.S. marshal for Arizona, said authorities believe Welch and McCluskey have minimal ties to white supremacy groups in or out of prisons and "we're not expending much resources on that right now."
The search continued Friday for Welch and McCluskey, but it no longer was focused on Arkansas, where Welch has family, or Montana, where the two last were seen Aug. 6. Rivera said the pair could be anywhere.
"It's a cat and mouse game right now," he said. "They're hiding, and we're trying to find them."
Attention on Arkansas intensified Wednesday when a man and a woman who robbed a beauty parlor in Gentry were believed to be the Arizona fugitives. Officials have since conceded that the robbers were probably locals.
Marshals and border officials in Montana are following up on what leads they have, but there have been no developments in the past few days, said Rod Ostermiller, Montana's acting U.S. marshal.
"At this point in time, just because of the time frame we're working with, we're expanding way beyond Montana," Ostermiller said Friday afternoon.
A reward of up to $35,000 is being offered for information leading to their Welch's and McCluskey's arrests. They are believed to be traveling in a 1997 Nissan Sentra that is gold, gray or tan in color. Authorities say the two likely will become more dangerous as the manhunt continues.
"Our concern is that they're still desperate. There's a lot of attention on them," Rivera said. "They're going to potentially make a mistake and hurt somebody."
Marshals are asking travelers at truck stops along highways and in campgrounds nationwide to watch out for the couple, who may have dyed their hair and otherwise changed their appearance. McCluskey and Welch are financing their getaway by committing crimes along the way and using their experience as long-haul truck drivers, Rivera said.
"We know they're out there and they're committing crimes out there to get money," Rivera said. "They have limited funds, they're sleeping in their car, they're staying at rest stops, campsites. They're not using a whole lot of money."
Rivera said authorities believe that McCluskey and Welch are avoiding contact with family members, who have provided limited information to authorities. Their route has crossed at least 1,900 miles since their escape.
"Sometimes we track people for years, sometimes we get lucky," Rivera said. "No matter what happens, this case will always be a priority for us."
Welch is facing a growing list of charges since the escape, including kidnapping, armed robbery and aggravated assault. She was charged last week with six counts of narcotics violations for the drugs she's accused of bringing to the prison.
Welch told investigators in June that the marijuana belonged to her, Carter said, but she picked up what she was told was heroin packaged in balloons from two men in Phoenix and was paid $200 each time she smuggled it into the prison, according to police records.
On the night of the escape, Welch had packed a getaway car nearby with cash, weapons and false identification, Rivera has said. But Renwick, Province, McCluskey became disoriented and could not find the car after they cut through the prison fence.
The group split up, and Renwick found the vehicle and drove off, leaving the other three to hijack a tractor-trailer and head to Flagstaff. Renwick, who was serving time for second-degree murder, was arrested after a shootout with law enforcement in Rifle, Colo., two days after the escape.
The rest of the group was linked through forensic evidence to the deaths of an Oklahoma couple whose bodies were found in their charred camper in eastern New Mexico last week, authorities there said.
Province, who was serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, was captured without incident after being spotted hanging out and singing hymns at a Wyoming church.
McCluskey was serving a 15-year prison term for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm.
Associated Press Writer Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.