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2 escapees hid out in wilds

Killers underestimated retiree when they tied him up, stole SUV

ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. — For the past week, escaped killers Danny Gallegos and Juan Diaz-Arevalo hid out in the rugged mountains along the Utah-Wyoming border, living off the packages of dried oatmeal, dried fruit and jerky they'd taken with them when they broke out of the Daggett County Jail.

They followed a draw to a remote area of ranches and tiny camper trailers, stalked an elderly man and then tied him up before stealing his SUV.

But the desperate criminals underestimated 79-year-old Bill Johnson, a retired Salt Lake City police officer. He broke free of some bindings, struggled to a road and flagged down help. It led to the quick capture of the two men after a chase and shooting here late Saturday night.

"These guys are murderers. Why is he still around?" U.S. marshal Mike Wingert wondered about Johnson as he stood outside the retiree's trailer Sunday. "He's really lucky."

Gallegos, 49, is listed in critical but stable condition at University Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Diaz-Arevalo, 27, is expected to appear today before a Wyoming judge as he faces extradition to Utah and more criminal charges.

Authorities believe Diaz-Arevalo and Gallegos, both convicted murderers, plotted their escape for weeks. When they escaped through an unlocked door, into the yard and over a razor wire fence, they wore several layers of jail-issued clothing and their pockets were stuffed with food from the jail commissary.

Gallegos was an experienced woodsman. U.S. marshals said Diaz-Arevalo had illegally crossed the border twice and was familiar with living off the land. Among the things police found were a leather satchel filled with kindling, a makeshift hiking staff and a lariat rope.

"It's tough country," Utah Department of Corrections director Tom Patterson said. "They were on foot. They had difficult terrain. They needed to make sure they were undetected, so they had to pick and choose when they could move."

On Sunday, U.S. marshals backtracked from Johnson's trailer into a nearby draw. As the crow flies, it is about 14 miles from the Daggett County Jail.

U.S. marshals believe the men lived on spring water in these mountains. At the base of some foothills along the Utah-Wyoming border, the pair broke into a trailer next to Johnson's. Ironically, it was a trailer that police had searched — and cleared — on Thursday. Wingert believes the fugitives entered it Friday night or Saturday.

Inside the trailer, U.S. marshals found that Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo had slept on mattresses, eaten old canned fruit and spent their time spying on Johnson, who visits his trailer on weekends.

"They could peek out of those blinds and watch what he was doing," Wingert said, motioning to a window behind a line of yellow crime-scene tape.

Johnson left his camper trailer for a few hours Saturday, giving the men time to make their move.

"They pull out a window," Wingert said. "They climb into the trailer and the elderly gentleman comes home ... they're waiting for him in there."

When Johnson arrived, authorities said, the escapees took his hunting knife, held it to his throat and bound him with duct tape.

"They bound his hands together, bound his legs together," Sweetwater County sheriff's detective Dick Blust said.

Using cloth strips, authorities said, they tied Johnson to a bedpost, covered him with a sleeping bag and shouted questions at him: "Where is your billfold? What's the fastest way to Rock Springs? How come you were in and out of the trailer so much?"

Wingert said Diaz-Arevalo and Gallegos took the man's camping gear, matches and another sleeping bag and the keys to his 1998 Ford Explorer. In the Explorer were three guns: a .22-caliber handgun, a .22-caliber rifle and a .38 Special revolver.

"Timing is everything on this one," Wingert said.

After an hour of struggling Johnson freed himself from some cloth bindings and the bedpost, authorities said, and he hopped out to the rural road. A young couple from Roy attending a barn dance at a nearby ranch were returning to Manila to buy diesel fuel. It was snowing and blowing fiercely.

"They see this old man who has duct tape around his wrists and his legs, jumping up and down on the road to get their attention," Wingert said.

The couple stopped — but they were miles from help. U.S. marshals said the couple drove nearly 5 miles before finding a faint cell phone signal to call 911.

"The way the young couple described it, she's looking at her phone, looking at her phone, and as he said it: 'All of a sudden, she yells out 'I've got 3 bars!"' Wingert said. "And he slams on the brakes."

Searchers were still in the area, and that enabled them to respond quickly.

"We were pushing very hard on Saturday in that area," Patterson said. "We feel like those efforts helped to flush them out."

Johnson declined to talk to reporters but relayed a message through the Sweetwater County Sheriff's Office saying he was glad the duo had been captured.

Uinta County (Wyo.) police dispatched a description of the SUV, which was spotted by a Sweetwater County sheriff's deputy about 9:38 p.m. Saturday outside a Pizza Hut in Green River.

"As officers closed in, they fled at speeds of over 100 miles per hour eastbound on I-80," Blust said.

Just outside Rock Springs, a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper positioned road spikes outside a freeway construction zone. The SUV traveled only a mile or two before stopping. Diaz-Arevalo, police said, jumped out with the .38 Special. Gallegos, armed with the rifle, exited the passenger side.

Blust said officers ordered them to drop their weapons and freeze. "They did neither. Gallegos turned with the rifle in his hands and was shot by one of our deputies. He dropped to the ground with the rifle beneath him."

U.S. marshals said Gallegos was shot by a deputy carrying a .308-caliber rifle. He was reportedly shot in the back, and the bullet exited through his abdomen.

Diaz-Arevalo ran. Because of nearby houses, police did not shoot at him. He was caught shortly and is in the Sweetwater County Detention Facility.

On Sunday afternoon, Utah Department of Corrections investigators met with him for about 45 minutes. Sweetwater County officials said Diaz-Arevalo is uncooperative.

"Diaz has been 110 percent noncooperative," Blust said. "He won't utter a word."

The men will likely face escape charges in Utah. They could face federal fugitive charges, as well as charges linked to the chase in Wyoming.

"We'd like to maintain custody of them," Patterson told the Deseret Morning News in an interview outside the jail here.

In March 1990, Gallegos broke into the apartment of his former girlfriend, Stephanie Groves, 18, and hid in a closet. Groves came home with two people, including Tammy Syndergaard, 18. While the three watched a movie, Gallegos jumped from the closet and shot Syndergaard in the back of the head, killing her. The other two escaped.

Diaz-Arevalo shot his girlfriend, Lindsey Fawson, 22, in the head in May 2005, as she sat in her car parked in a Draper driveway.

Authorities are frustrated that a Vernal man claimed to have seen the inmates along U.S. 191 earlier this week. It sparked a massive search response, only for authorities to later learn the man lied.

Police said they planned to pursue criminal charges against the man for the false lead. Meanwhile, Johnson and the couple who helped him may be eligible for a share of the $20,000 reward offered for the capture Gallegos and Diaz.

Questions remain about security at the Daggett County Jail. The Utah Department of Corrections has ordered a comprehensive review. Patterson said he will review some findings with his staff today before meeting with Daggett County Sheriff Rick Ellsworth, who said he is working to address Patterson's concerns.

"You could have the best policy in the world, but if you're not implementing it, you've got a problem," Patterson said.

Corrections officials have described a lack of staff (one deputy on duty the night of the escape was sick and spent part of his shift in a bathroom), policy violations and technical problems (an unlocked door that facilitated the escape).

Patterson said corrections officers are still investigating whether the men had help escaping, either from jail staffers or other inmates.

Patterson said he wants to audit the 20 county jails with state contracts.