HOUSTON - A shrewd, well-organized master criminal appears to be the leader of seven escaped Texas prisoners suspected of killing a policeman, authorities said Thursday - and they fear the escapees might be planning a violent showdown with police.
A Christmas Eve robbery in Irving, in which Officer Aubrey Hawkins was slain, bore marked similarities to the El Paso robberies that landed escapee George Rivas in jail in 1994.
Rivas, 34, whom El Paso prosecutor Marcos Lizarraga once called "the most dangerous man in Texas," had led a group of thugs posing as security guards in at least a half-dozen robberies.
Since the Irving officer's killing, leads have poured in to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from south Texas to Fort Worth. Every law enforcement agency in the state is participating in a huge manhunt, from small-town police departments to the Texas Rangers, said David Clark, a Dallas Police Department detective.
Al Velarde, a spokesman for the El Paso police, recalled: "During the robberies, Rivas was very calm, very cool. He appeared as if he truly knew what he was doing."
But in his last El Paso robbery, Rivas also resisted authorities beyond all reasonable hope of success.
After a three-hour siege, a police SWAT team including dozens of officers burst into the store Rivas and his gang had robbed.
Rivas and the others were crouched in a rooftop air conditioner, still hoping to escape. Rivas was sentenced to 99 years for aggravated kidnapping and robbery.
Now Rivas and six others, all serving sentences of 30 years to life, are at large with warm clothes, apparent outside help and as many as 40 guns.
The combination raises the specter of a violent standoff, said FBI spokesman Lori Bailey.
"Certainly we're all concerned about that," she said. "They have quite a cache of weapons and ammunition, and they're obviously not afraid to use them."
On Dec. 13, Rivas and his companions combined guile and violence to overcome 11 civilians and inmates and finally a watchtower guard before fleeing from the maximum-security prison in Kennedy.
Taking guns from the tower, the seven escaped in a state-issued car, later swapping it for another that authorities think was supplied by accomplices.
Amazed by the group's organization and coherence, officials said the breakout may have been planned for as long as six months. Certainly, it demonstrated a concern for drama and perhaps retribution.
"You haven't heard the last of us," one of the escapees said in a note left in his cell.
Still together, the group resurfaced on Christmas Eve, in an elaborate robbery of a sporting goods store in Irving, a Dallas suburb. Dressed as security guards, three of the inmates approached a 17-year-old employee in the store's parking lot, announcing that they were investigating a break-in of his car two days earlier.
The employee, Tony Coronado said the three yelled, "Everybody, hands in the air!" after they had entered the store with him, according to an account in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Communicating on walkie-talkies with code names such as gato (Spanish for cat) and jefe (chief), the band tied and handcuffed 23 employees.
They stole new clothes, $70,000 in cash and at least 25 new weapons.
Aubrey met the seven as they fled the building. He was shot, and his gun was taken. The suspects then ran over him as they fled in the store manager's sport utility vehicle, authorities said.
Authorities are providing FBI profilers with details about each escapee, hoping that the group and its structure can be better understood.
"If they had any sense, they'd break up, to minimize capture," said Virginia criminologist Robert K. Ressler, a 20-year veteran of the FBI's behavioral science unit.
"When you get seven people involved like this, the only thing it tells me is there's got to be one strong leader here. One leader, pretty much a criminal psychopath. A guy willing to break out of jail, kill a police officer - clearly with no limits to how far he can go."