Killers escape prison sparking massive manhunt

Posted at 5:37 AM, Mar 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-12 07:37:52-05

Arizona’s most notorious death row inmates past and present have incredible stories, including this one that launched the state's largest manhunt. 

The Tison gang terrorized Arizona in the summer of 1978. The gang leader Gary Tison died in the Arizona desert, but his escape partner, Randy Greenawalt, spent 18 years on Arizona’s death row.


Date of Birth: February 24, 1949

Executed: January 23, 1997

PHOTOS: Arizona's youngest inmates currently on death row

The Prisoners:

Randy Greenawalt was in the Arizona State Prison in Florence serving a life sentence for the 1974 murder of a truck driver at a rest stop on Interstate 40 near Winslow. Greenawalt drew an “X” on the door near the head of the sleeping trucker, then fired a shot through the door. He later confessed to killing two other men in other states.

(Tison) overpowered the prison guard … shot and killed him with his own gun

Gary Tison was first jailed in 1960, after robbing a grocery store when he was just 25 years old. When his wife came to visit, Tison escaped from the visiting room. He was soon recaptured, finished his sentence and was paroled.

Seven years later, Tison was accused of violating his parole by writing a bad check. As he was being escorted to prison, he overpowered the guard, grabbed his gun and shot and killed him. Tison was sent to Florence prison on a life sentence.


The Escape:

In 1978, Tison and Greenawalt were awarded for their good behavior, and transferred into the trustee unit. But on July 30 they changed their attitude when Tison’s three sons, Donald age 20, Ricky, 19, and Raymond 18 came to visit.

They left in Tison’s Ford Galaxy without firing a shot

While Ricky was talking with his father, his brothers pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of an ice chest they were carrying. They rounded up guards and visitors and locked them in a storage closet, then the five men walked slowly out of the prison. The tower guards assumed they were all departing visitors. Their escape was aided by Greenawalt, who cut the alarm and phone lines. They left in Tison’s Ford Galaxy without firing a shot.  

The Killing spree and Manhunt:

After staying two days in a nearby house and switching cars, the men drove toward Flagstaff on back roads until they got a flat tire.

The youngest son, Raymond, stayed by the car to flag down a passing motorist, while the others laid in wait.

"Give us some water… just leave us here and you all go home"

Marine Sgt. John Lyons and his family stopped to help, and were taken by gunpoint into the desert. They begged for their lives, “Give us some water…just leave us here and you all go home.” But the fugitives were not willing to make a deal.

While the water jug was being filled, Gary Tison and Greenawalt used shotguns to kill the family of four, including a 2-year-old boy. The couple's niece survived long enough to crawl a quarter mile before succumbing to her injuries. She was found huddled over the family dog that was also killed.

From there, the Tison gang managed to get to Colorado, and needed to switch cars.

That's when they came across James and Margene Judge, Texas newlyweds honeymooning in Colorado to see the Dallas Cowboys play the Denver Broncos. But the couple never made it to the game. The Tison gang killed them near Pagosa Springs, took their van and returned to Arizona. 


The Capture:

On August 11, 1978, twelve days after their escape, the Tison gang was back in Arizona. They were driving the Judge’s van and presumably heading for Mexico, when they ran a roadblock in Pinal County.

As they ran the second roadblock, police fired killing Donny Tison and forcing the van off the road. After a 30 minute gunbattle with police, Randy Greenawalt and the two other Tison boys, Ricky and Raymond, were captured. Gary Tison, who vowed never to be taken alive, escaped.

Law enforcement mobilized the largest manhunt in state history

Arizona law enforcement mobilized the largest manhunt in state history. More than 300 officers and hundreds of civilian volunteers searched for Tison in the desert near Chuichu, Arizona - about 10 miles South of Casa Grande.

They searched for days with temperatures nearing 120 degrees.   

A chemical worker named Ray Thomas was throwing out trash and smelled a foul odor when he found Gary Tison, dead of exposure. Tison was under a mesquite tree, about a mile and half from the where the van crashed.


Prison Time and Execution:

Ricky and Raymond Tison were tried, convicted and sentenced to death. In 1992 their death sentences were overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court. They were re-sentenced to life in prison, where they remain today.

Randy Greenawalt was also tried and convicted for the escape and following murders. In appeals court, his lawyers used a similar argument that lawyers use today; that the state's use of lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment.

In the end, Greenawalt's sentence was not overturned, and after 18 years of appeals Greenawalt was executed by lethal injection on January 23, 1997.

"If they'd executed him the first time, those people might still be alive today"

Bob Corbin, Arizona's Attorney General in 1978, said "He deserves it. I hope the hell they carry it out this time. If they'd executed him for his crime the first time, those people might still be alive today."


Greenawalt’s last meal:



Coffee with milk