A husband and wife who overpowered two guards while being transported from New York to Arizona are in custody after authorities searched over two weeks for them.
The U.S. Marshals Service said Blane and Susan Barksdale were arrested Wednesday night at a home in Punkin Center, a small rural community in Gila County that’s over an 85-mile drive northeast of downtown Phoenix.
The couple had been on the run since late August, when authorities said Susan Barksdale faked a medical emergency in Blanding, Utah, leading the transport guards to pull over and check on her.
The Barksdales were being transported due to their arrest in May in New York after Tucson police tied them to the presumed death of 72-year-old Frank Bligh and an arson fire at his home in April.
However, while being transported Aug. 26, the Barksdales overpowered the guards, tied them up and place them in the back of the van, along with a third inmate who is unrelated to the couple’s case.
The Barksdales drove the van to Vernon, Arizona, where they obtained a red truck from an acquaintance. They then drove both vehicles to St. Johns, Arizona, where they dumped the van and fled in the truck.
Authorities said the guards were able to free themselves and alerted officials. The Marshals Service said the Barksdales probably had an eight-hour start on their escape before anyone started searching for them.
Authorities across Arizona teamed up in the search, pleading for the public to be on the lookout and report any sightings of the couple or the red truck.
Authorities believed the Barksdales were receiving help from multiple people, and said the couple was likely hiding off the grid in the Snowflake area.
Combined rewards of up to $40,000 were set up for any information leading to the Barksdales’ location and arrests.
Earlier this week, the Marshals Service labeled Blane Barksdale as one of their Top 15 Most Wanted Fugitives.
Then on Wednesday, a caller reported to authorities that the Barksdales may be at a residence in Punkin Center.
At night, about 50 law enforcement personnel responded to the area and surrounded the home. U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said the homeowner exited first and admitted the couple was in the home. Susan Barksdale then exited and was reportedly sobbing and upset.
Blane Barksdale eventually came out and was initially cooperative. But he started flipping off authorities and was being verbally abusive. At some point, a deputy marshal deployed Taser and bean-bag rounds to get him on the ground.
While in custody, authorities said Mr. Barksdale reportedly said “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”
“I thought that was very fitting for Blane Barksdale,” Mr. Gonzales said. “To let the officers know that it could be a mean world.”
Van Bayless, assistant chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service District of Arizona, said he didn’t feel the comment was a threat, adding Mr. Barksdale was nonchalant and compliant while in custody.
He said no weapons were found at the home.
Mr. Gonzales found it interesting that the Barksdales were located in the Tonto Basin area. In 2010, authorities tracked John McCluskey — who escaped a Kingman prison with two other inmates — to that area, after he had carjacked and killed an Oklahoma couple.
The Barksdales were expected to be transported separately from a jail in Florence to make an initial appearance in court Thursday afternoon in Tucson for an unlawful flight to avoid prosecution charge. Mr. Gonzales said the couple would be dismissed of that charge as a formality and then taken to Tucson to face their laundry list of charges in the Bligh case.
As for the red truck that gained notoriety for being on highway signs, authorities smirked and said they don’t have it in possession, but believe it’s still in northern Arizona.
“It’s a big relief off our shoulders,” Mr. Gonzales said about the captures.
Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said his agency has been involved since the day authorities learned of the Barksdales’ escape in Utah. DPS’ Ranger 1 helicopter was over the Punkin Center home when the couple was arrested.
He smiled at a press conference when addressing Blane Barksdale’s comment about being careful out there.
“We tell them the same thing,” Mr. Milstead said.
Sheriff David Clouse of Navajo County said the remote locations where the Barksdales may have hid presented challenges for law enforcement, but his agency was able to offer a lot of working knowledge of the area.
“They laid low for a very long time because of some of these very remote locations,” he said. “We still feel to this day that they spent a lot of time there because of the connections they had to those communities and the opportunities that it provided to stay under the radar.”
He added it was great news to share with the people in Navajo and Apache counties as their level of concern had risen when they found out the Barksdales may be in those areas.
Sheriff Adam Shepherd of Gila County said he had no indication the Barksdales may be in his jurisdiction until Wednesday, but that his agency had been diligent in case something came their way.
He said one of the most important things out of the case was knowing the search came to a conclusion without loss of life or anyone being injured.
Mr. Bayless said after the Barksdales were in custody, they each provided accounts that had holes in them.
He said the agencies involved were phenomenal, never having to ask each other twice about resources.
“We wanted the manhunt to end,” Mr. Bayless said. “Not because we wanted to sleep, but because we wanted to make sure we were protecting the public.
“Our fear was that they would come across someone in the remote areas of northeast Arizona and potentially put them in harms way.”
The Barksdales are facing charges including first-degree murder, burglary, arson, criminal damage and auto theft.
While the two are in custody, anyone with information on the case is encouraged to call 1-877-WANTED-2 or submit tips online.
Among the agencies involved in one way or another are the U.S. Marshals Service; the FBI; the Arizona Department of Public Safety; the Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, Show Low, Surprise and Tuscon Police departments; Maricopa County Adult Probation; the Arizona Department of Corrections; the Apache, Gila, Maricopa, Navajo and Pinal Sheriff's offices, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.