Copter Escape Couple Caught at Jewel Shop

Times Staff Writers

Two prison sweethearts involved in a daring helicopter prison escape earlier this month were arrested Saturday when they returned to a jewelry store to see if wedding rings they had purchased were ready.

Ronald J. McIntosh, wearing glasses and a hat to disguise his identity, and Samantha Dorinda Lopez, wearing a brown wig, surrendered without a struggle after 15 federal marshals closed in on them at the Birdcage Walk shopping mall in suburban Citrus Heights.

When arrested, McIntosh was carrying a brief case that contained two handguns--a 9-millimeter automatic and a .357-Magnum--ammunition and $2,000 in cash, U.S. Marshal Arthur F. Van Court said.

About 50 federal marshals had been looking for the couple since Nov. 5, when McIntosh, who previously had escaped from the Federal Correction Institute near Pleasanton, daringly flew back to the prison in a hijacked helicopter, swooped down into the yard and lifted Lopez to freedom.

McIntosh, 42, a twice-convicted con artist, was serving a four-year federal term for fraud and parole violation when he met Lopez, 37, who was serving a 50-year sentence for her part in a series of bank robberies in the South.

Van Court said authorities had received a tip that the couple had twice visited Merksamer Jewelers at the shopping mall and would be returning to pick up the engagement and wedding rings they had purchased. The couple bought at least $5,500 in jewelry from the store.

"I would think the last thing you would want to do is go back to the same location three times and risk having someone put the pieces together," said Carol Folsom, an assistant store manager, who witnessed the arrests.

Although their wedding rings were not supposed to be ready until Tuesday, two marshals began posing as store clerks on Saturday while more than a dozen other agents staked out the mall.

McIntosh and Lopez entered the store shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon to check on the rings. After waiting a few minutes, Lopez walked to a nearby shoe store, Folsom said.

'They Were Overwhelmed'

Marshals closed in and arrested her and then nabbed McIntosh in the jewelry store. McIntosh fumbled with the latch to his briefcase, but was unable to open it before he was arrested, Van Court said.

"They were overwhelmed," the marshal said.

Folsom said she and other clerks at the store had been suspicious of the couple when they first came to the store Monday and Tuesday.

On their earlier visits, the couple picked out more than $5,000 worth of jewelry in less than 15 minutes, including the rings, a diamond pendant and gold chains.

"That's a very unique shopper and you do take notice," Folsom said. "We really assumed they were going to pass a bad check."

Explaining that they had just moved to the Sacramento area from Oregon, McIntosh paid for the jewelry with cash and a check drawn on an Oregon bank. The two seemed unsure of their address and said they had no telephone, Folsom said.

Access to $2 Million

The check, however, proved to be good. Authorities believe that the couple may have had access to as much as $2 million that was never recovered from their various crimes, including more than $1 million in cash and $700,000 in gold coins.

The fugitives were confident enough to order a ring for McIntosh that was set with diamonds and would take a week to make, Folsom said.

"I hope they had a good time," Folsom said. "Because I'd guess they're not going to get out for a long time."

On their visits to the store, Lopez wore a wig that was "obvious," Folsom said. McIntosh wore glasses in the store--but not in photographs later shown to her by marshals, she added.

According to Folsom, McIntosh used the name Lyle Thompson--the same name he allegedly used when renting the helicopter used in freeing Lopez from prison.

McIntosh escaped on Oct. 28, while on an unescorted bus ride from Pleasanton to the federal prison facility at Lompoc, where he was to serve out the remaining 15 months of his sentence. He disappeared after guards at Pleasanton bought him a bus ticket and drove him to a nearby Greyhound station. McIntosh had requested the transfer.

On Nov. 5, McIntosh allegedly posed as a developer and chartered the helicopter in San Jose, saying he wanted to inspect some property. Once airborne, authorities say he pointed a pistol at the pilot and ordered him to land in a remote area. McIntosh took the pilot's shoes and flew off alone to free Lopez.

The helicopter was later found abandoned about 15 miles from Pleasanton.

Escape Carefully Planned

McIntosh had carefully planned the daring escape. Four days before commandeering the helicopter, he rented another one in Concord and practiced his maneuvers. He learned to fly helicopters during a tour of duty in Vietnam and also worked as a test pilot in Seattle, Wash., authorities said. McIntosh and Lopez worked together in the business office at the country-club style Pleasanton prison and often were seen walking together and holding hands, which is permitted at the facility where male and female inmates share a recreation yard, Warden Rob Roberts said.

Lopez and her husband, Carl, were members of a gang that staged bank robberies in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, in some cases after kidnaping bankers as hostages, officials said. Her husband is incarcerated at another prison.

After their arrests Saturday, the pair told marshals where their car was parked. Inside the glove compartment, agents found a .38-caliber handgun.

Van Court said the two apparently spent time in Los Angeles, as well as Sacramento, during their 10 days of freedom together. He said the investigation was not closed.

'Other People Involved'

"Beyond any doubt, there are several other people involved in this who aided and abetted them," the marshal said, but declined to elaborate.

McIntosh, pleaded no contest--the equivalent of a guilty plea in a criminal case--last year to state charges of bilking 2,500 investors out of $18 million in 16 months through a scheme in which he said the money was to be used to speculate on gold and silver prices. With time off for good behavior, McIntosh, who was serving state and federal sentences concurrently, would have been eligible for parole in 15 months.

His San Francisco-based company, First International Trading Co., was described in court documents as a "classic boiler-shop operation" that used hard-sell and fraudulent techniques to sell illegal futures contracts for precious metals. The now defunct company also had sales offices in Irvine, Mill Valley, Dallas and Houston.

Investigators later found that McIntosh and some other employees took at least $6.4 million to spend on cars, houses and other luxuries. Court records say that salesmen were often rewarded with $100 bills, trips to Brazil and Jaguar automobiles and that salesman received $425,000 in bonuses in less than one year.

Employees also used luxury cars leased to them by a limousine company owned by McIntosh's wife, April, and the chauffeur of his partner, records show.

McIntosh and his wife, April, separated after the firm collapsed.

Richard C. Paddock reported from Sacramento and James Bates from Los Angeles.

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