A helicopter made a daring landing in the exercise yard of the Santa Fe prison Monday morning, plucking three prisoners from inside the walls and roaring away in a fusillade of gunfire.
In the hours that followed, a drama was acted out that included high-speed chases in the air and on the ground, and a manhunt in the densely wooded river bottom of the Rio Grande, which runs through this small community south of Albuquerque.
At one point, the fleeing copter was pursued by two other helicopters and, during a kind of aerial dogfight, apparently tried to ram one and force the other into a construction crane.
By late afternoon, two of the three inmates had been captured, as had a woman who officials said was also in the helicopter. The pilot, tentatively identified as Charles Bella of El Paso, asserted to police that he had been forced to fly his helicopter at gunpoint.
'Could Easily Take a Hostage'
As evening approached, the last of the inmates, Daniel Mahoney, 30, was believed to be hiding in the underbrush near the river.
"We've got to catch him before dark," said Valencia County Sheriff Lawrence Romero. "Both sides of the river are heavily populated. In the dark he could easily take a hostage."
The day's drama began about 9:40 a.m., when an Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopter swooped into the recreation yard and picked up three men. Prison guards fired at the copter but did not hit it.
Dan Taylor, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, said the helicopter headed south and was spotted by a U.S. Customs Service helicopter that happened to be in the area.
Meanwhile, police agencies around the state were being contacted and told to check airports in their jurisdictions. One of those was Mid-Valley Airport, outside Los Lunas, where two highway patrolmen and two sheriff's deputies watched the helicopter approach.
About an hour after the prison break, the craft landed at Mid-Valley. Sgt. Gilbert Candelaria, one of those waiting, said one man got out of the helicopter and ran to a green and white pickup truck. The sheriff's deputies gave chase and Candelaria said they went through the center of town at speeds approaching 90 m.p.h.
The chase ended when the truck went into a spin and stalled, and deputies shot at the driver. He was hit, apparently not seriously, and was identified as Randy Mack Lackey, 36, who was serving a 9-year sentence on a larceny conviction.
Meanwhile, the helicopter had taken off again, this time heading north toward Albuquerque.
The Customs Service helicopter again gave chase, joined by a state police copter piloted by Maj. John Denko. "We both hung with him. We knew he had to set down because he was running low on fuel," Denko told the Associated Press.
Copter Dodges Violently
In Albuquerque, the helicopter flew over the city, still being closely pursued. At one point it apparently tried to turn into the Customs Service helicopter, which dodged violently to avoid a collision. Then, Denko said, it "turned into us and tried to run us into a crane" involved in the construction at the Albuquerque airport.
Taylor, the public safety spokesman, said the fleeing copter finally landed at Albuquerque International Airport.
"I think it became clear that no one was going to go away," he said.
The two on board surrendered and were arrested. One was identified as Bella, the pilot, who said he ran a helicopter service from El Paso. Bella's wife told the Associated Press that he left for work at 5 a.m. Monday for a contract flight to Santa Fe.
The other on board was identified as Francis Preston Mitchell, 26, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in Utah. Mahoney, who was still at large, is serving a life-plus-60-year sentence for second-degree murder and armed robbery in Florida. The two were imprisoned in New Mexico under an interstate compact that allows for the transfer of inmates.
Woman Found in Hangar
Meanwhile, at the Mid-Valley Airport in Los Lunas, law officers found a woman hiding in a hangar. She was identified as Beverly Shoemaker, but Sheriff Romero said the woman was not talking.
"She ain't telling us nothing," he said. Romero said the woman was arrested carrying a box of .38-caliber special cartridges.
Romero also found tracks leading to the river, after an airport employee said a third person--believed to be Mahoney--had gotten out of the helicopter and headed in that direction. But the trail quickly went cold. Roadblocks were set up all around Los Lunas.