Fugitive Justice

Gary Robert Williams's violent career began spectacularly 29 years ago. This is the story of how one determined U.S. marshal brought it to an end.

When the Big Moment came, Deputy U.S. Marshal Richard "Marshall" Baker was in the unlikeliest of places -- flopped out on his living-room couch.

For six months, he had been working 18-hour days trying to track down a fugitive named Gary Robert Williams, a violent, lifelong criminal wanted most recently for violating parole. Baker had endured mind-numbing stakeouts and edgy confrontations with Williams's family deep in the forests of Southeast Texas; he had led squads of law-enforcement officers, dressed in full tactical gear, on tense and stealthy military-style maneuvers through the woods to get to the isolated, well-guarded home of Williams's father, through property rumored to be booby-trapped and stocked with free-running attack dogs.

Baker had become consumed with the case, to the point where colleagues warned him to back off -- he was always talking "Gary this" or "Gary that," trying to anticipate the next move by the felon he had grown to know so well that he referred to him by his first name.

Williams was dangerous, he knew; everyone he talked to, from Williams's family to cops or prison officials who had dealt with him, had made that clear. The 51-year-old had a long criminal history of kidnapping, robbery and shootouts with police; he had been involved in a prison murder and had almost escaped from jail a time or two. A member of the Aryan Nation, he had a melodramatic sense of his desperate ways, seeing himself as a modern-day Jesse James, and he had told more than a few acquaintances that he would never go back to prison alive.

Williams knew, as he was on the run from Baker, that he was dying of AIDS. He knew that if he was captured, he'd die in jail, so he planned to go out in a blaze of glory and take a few goddamn cops with him.

All that just added adrenaline to Baker's efforts, and Baker was a guy who fed off adrenaline. An Army brat who'd never lived more than three years in any one place growing up, at 26 he was almost a four-year veteran of the Marshals Service. He'd been recruited out of the Army, where he had done the kinds of things in a four-year stint that are the stuff of Tom Clancy novels -- Special Ops spook operations for the National Security Agency. Working out of the 82nd Airborne, he was a real Airborne ninja, getting his first taste of enemy fire at a time when most kids his age were making plans for the prom.

He's been going at life nonstop since he was 17, and that includes his off-hours. His way of relaxing is to shuck the suit and tie, put on some Doc Martens and earrings, and go to the mosh pit to have his ears blasted by Tool, Soundgarden or Rocket in the Crypt.

So it was a little incongruous to find the hyperkinetic rush junkie sitting lazily on the couch when the Big Moment finally came. Baker will tell you that he was there in his boxers on that Saturday morning, nursing a hangover with cold leftover pizza, but,like most cops, Baker knows how to throw in a seemingly self-deprecating detail or two when he's in his raconteur mode.

In any case, it was ten in the morning when the call came. Baker had actually shoved the Williams case aside by that point, heeding the advice that he had gotten too close emotionally to it and was chasing his own tail.

Part of what he had done was to stake out the Houston cemetery where Williams's mother was buried. The family was extremely close, and Baker knew Williams had been devastated by his mom's recent death. On her birthday, Baker had gone to the cemetery and waited in vain for Gary to show up. He had made plans to do the same on Mother's Day.

He didn't think about Easter. But apparently Gary did. On that Easter Saturday, he had gone to visit his Mom's grave. Baker had given out Gary's photo to everyone who worked nearby, and someone called him that morning.

"I got this call from someone [near the cemetery] who I had briefed, and all they said was, 'Do you remember Gary Williams?' " says Baker. "I couldn't say anything, and they said, 'He's right here. I'm looking at him right now.' I just screamed and called out a ton of units for backup, threw on my clothes and got on the road."

But, he was to discover, Gary Williams wasn't done messing with him yet.

Gary Williams's criminal career had begun a long time before, with a vagrancy arrest when he was 17. Much of the information on him beyond some prison records isn't public, so little is known about his upbringing. What is known is that in 1969 his career took a turn for the spectacular, with a manic prison escape and chase across state lines that involved shootouts, holding three different families hostage, telephone negotiations with the governor of Louisiana, and a brave farmer standing up for his family.

The 15-hour episode was almost a replay of the incident that inspired Steven Spielberg's film The Sugarland Express, and it earned heavy coverage in the newspapers.

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