Texas death row inmate escapes extensive manhunt is launched

Double murderer flees into dense woods after six companions surrender


HOUSTON -- For the first time since Dust Bowl days, a condemned inmate has escaped from Texas' death row prison.

Martin E. Gurule's scheme involved dummies and a desperate sprint through a hail of bullets.

Gurule, 29, became the first death row inmate ever to make it completely out of the vast prison complex in Huntsville and into the surrounding piney woods.

"All of the others who got out of death row were caught somewhere else inside the complex," said Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Yesterday afternoon, hundreds of police officers and tracking dogs were picking their way through the rough, marshy woods east and north of Huntsville, hoping to catch the trail of Gurule, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of a Corpus Christi restaurant owner and a cook during a robbery.

Helicopters equipped with infrared telescopes were buzzing over the Walker County treetops near the Trinity River, which runs along the prison's east side.

Texas correction officials said Gurule and six other death row inmates at the Ellis Unit northeast of Huntsville cut through a fence surrounding an outdoor recreation yard and were able to ** clamber to a rooftop before the other prisoners were taken back to their cells at 8: 15 Thanksgiving night.

Prison guards did not notice the men were missing because they had transformed pillows and sheets into makeshift dummies, making it appear they were asleep in their bunks, Fitzgerald said.

A guard noticed the men dropping off the rooftop about 12: 20 a.m. yesterday, immediately sounded the alarm and began firing as many as 20 rounds.

When the shooting began, the other six inmates gave themselves up, Fitzgerald said, but Gurule kept running and made his way over an exterior fence and into the nearby woods.

The guard said he saw Gurule fall to the ground briefly after he shot at him, but officials found no evidence of blood.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald said prison officials were confident that vTC the fugitive remained somewhere in the surrounding woods, which he said were so thick and soggy and unforgiving that Gurule would have been unable to move quickly.

By early yesterday, officials had the countryside surrounded at an eight-mile perimeter, which they believed was well beyond the range that Gurule could have run in that time. Police officers ++ stood side by side along all of the roads leading into the Ellis Unit, making it difficult for Gurule to cross out of the dense woods.

Prison officials described Gurule as very dangerous but said they had no reason to believe he was armed.

The unit is one of several that make up the vast Huntsville prison complex. Executions take place at the Wall Unit, closer to the center of Huntsville, which is an hour's drive north of Houston.

Texas has the busiest death row in the nation. Officials said there have been 17 executions this year at Huntsville.

Gurule was convicted of murder in the shooting of Mike Piperis, 46, co-owner of the U&I Restaurant in Corpus Christi, and Anthony Staton, 31, one of the restaurant's cooks, on Oct. 12, 1992. Also convicted was Malisa Smith, Gurule's girlfriend at the time, who had worked at the restaurant. She received a 25-year sentence.

Gurule contended during his trial that he had not gone to the restaurant intending to rob it, but because he had been summoned by Piperis, who feared that Gurule intended to turn him in to federal tax officials. The shootings occurred during a struggle over the gun when Gurule said he feared for his life.

Gurule's story didn't convince the court, largely because both of the men had been shot in the head, execution-style, and because money and receipts were found in Smith's apartment. Police estimated that the couple stole $9,000.

Fitzgerald said the search would continue into the night and until some sign was found of Gurule's path of flight.

Officials said they were confident it would not take long.

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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