'Texas 7' gang leader to be executed Wednesday

George Rivas, Feb. 15, 2012 (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ron T. Ennis - AP)
George Rivas, Feb. 15, 2012 (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ron T. Ennis - AP)

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — The leader of the fugitive "Texas 7" gang was headed to the death chamber Wednesday for killing a suburban Dallas police officer during a robbery 11 years ago after organizing and pulling off Texas' biggest prison break.

George Rivas, 41, from El Paso, was set for lethal injection for gunning down Aubrey Hawkins, a 29-year-old Irving police officer who interrupted the gang's holdup of a sporting goods store on Christmas Eve 11 years ago. The seven escapees had fled a South Texas prison about two weeks earlier.

They were caught in Colorado about a month after the officer's death. One committed suicide rather than be arrested. Rivas and five others with lengthy sentences who bolted with him were returned to Texas where they separately were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die. Rivas would be the second of the group executed.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles this week voted 7-0, rejecting a clemency petition for Rivas. No eleventh hour appeals were made to try to head off the execution, the second this year in the nation's most active death penalty state.

"It's fair to say they're exhausted," attorney Mick Mickelson, who last met with Rivas a few weeks ago, said Tuesday. "He seemed ready for it."

Rivas and accomplices he hand-picked for the escape broke out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Connally Unit, about an hour south of San Antonio, on Dec. 13, 2000. They overpowered workers, stole their clothes, broke into the prison armory for weapons and drove off in a prison truck.

They left behind an ominous note: "You haven't heard the last of us yet."

While out of prison, they supported themselves by committing robberies.

Hawkins was shot 11 times and run over with a stolen SUV as they held up a sporting goods store closing on the holiday eve and drove off with loot that included $70,000 in cash, 44 firearms and ammunition for the guns. A month later, they were arrested in Colorado, ending a six-week nationwide manhunt. One of the fugitives, Larry Harper, committed suicide as officers closed in.

In 2008, accomplice Michael Rodriguez, 45, who at the time of the breakout had a life term for arranging the slaying of his wife, ordered his appeals dropped and was executed. The four others remain on death row awaiting the outcome of court appeals.

Toby Shook, the former Dallas County assistant district attorney who prosecuted all six surviving defendants for Hawkins' death, called Rivas a manipulator with superficial charm.

"Just a pure psychopath," Shook said. "He had no fear of committing crime... He's not a very good criminal. He always got caught."

Rivas planned the escape while serving 17 life sentences for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery and another life sentence for burglary. Prosecutors said his record began at age 11 when he molested a 6-year-old relative.

Wayne Huff, one of his trial lawyers, said Rivas picked accomplices for the breakout "who probably were more dangerous than he was" and failed to consider they might get caught doing robberies.

"When that cop pulled up, no one knew what to do," Huff said, calling the officer's slaying "just a tragic situation."

"The evidence was pretty overwhelming," he said. "We had no doubt at all that he'd be found guilty."

Shook said the officer's widow, who was in the death chamber to Rodriguez's lethal injection nearly four years ago, would not attend Rivas' punishment and asked him to represent her on Wednesday evening.

"Rivas has worked hard for this particular day," Shook said. "He justly deserves everything he's going to get. He's not a very good criminal. He always got caught."

Rivas was among three escapees arrested at a convenience store near a trailer park in Woodland Park, Colo. Two were in a motor home at the trailer park, where Harper shot himself to death. Two were apprehended at a motel in Colorado Springs, Colo. The men had told the people who ran the RV park they were Christian missionaries from Texas but a neighbor recognized them as the case was profiled on the TV show "America's Most Wanted" and called police.

The four former fugitives still awaiting execution are Patrick Murphy Jr. 49; Joseph Garcia, 40; Randy Halprin, 34; and Donald Newbury, 49. Newbury was set for injection in early February but was spared, at least temporarily, by a U.S. Supreme Court order.

Another execution is scheduled for next week in Texas. Keith Thurmond, 52, faces death on March 7 for killing his estranged wife and her boyfriend at their home near Houston more than 10 years ago.