Fugitive Justice

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.

Williams was in the Gregg County Jail in Longview on July 11, 1969, after his arrest for robbing a supermarket. He shared a cell with three other men; when a jailer opened the cell to give them a mop and bucket, they jumped him and threatened him until he showed them where pistols were stored.

Taking two sheriff's deputies hostage, the short, stocky Williams and two other inmates commandeered a police cruiser and took off down Highway 80 to Marshall, holding a gun to the head of the deputy at the wheel. They ordered him to get on the radio and warn other police units to stay away, or he and the other officer would be shot.

The car then had a flat tire; a chase car got within 100 yards, and a brief gunfight ensued. One officer was injured, and when his partner went to help him, Williams and the other two escapees grabbed their hostages and jumped in a station wagon that had come upon the scene.

They drove to Waskom, robbed a filling station of five bucks and gas, stole the car of a customer and headed for Louisiana. In Mansfield, they drove up to the house of Herbert DeSoto and took his wife and children hostage. After law-enforcement officials arrived, the escapees insisted on talking to Louisiana Governor John McKeithen. According to news reports at the time, McKeithen allowed the inmates a three-hour head start on authorities if they released their hostages. They agreed to free all of the hostages except one of the two Gregg County deputies; the freed officer was hospitalized for "broken ribs and other fractures received in a beating," according to a news report.

Careening across cotton fields and back roads, the escapees came upon a second house, where they again took the family hostage and talked with the governor. They took off again, releasing the last deputy on a deserted country road. By this time they had gathered an arsenal of weapons from their various stops.

Hungry and hunted, they came upon the Flatwoods, Louisiana, home of 60-year-old Leo Martin, a house deep in the Kisatchie National Forest. Holding a gun on Martin, his wife and their 17-year-old daughter, the trio demanded food. They heard a car pass as they ate in the kitchen; when one of the fugitives put down his shotgun and went to the front room to investigate, Martin grabbed it. He held Williams and the other remaining inmate at bay and shot the third when he returned to the room.

"The others saw I meant business, and I didn't have no more trouble out of them," Martin later told reporters.

He let the two go -- because, according to a police report, "he believed these two younger men had saved his daughter's life by threatening [the third man] and telling him not to shoot her."

Williams and the other inmate ran off under the aim of Martin's shotgun, but soon surrendered to authorities. Williams, then 22, received 25 years in federal prison for kidnapping.

It's sometimes difficult to piece together the prison records, but Williams's time behind bars was evidently busy. He had years added on to his sentence for various escape attempts -- one time, he had a cobbler put two hacksaw blades in the soles of his shoes, and was caught sawing bolts from the window of a county jail he was temporarily residing in; another time, while he was being transferred to testify against another inmate, a rectal exam found a cigar tube containing a hacksaw blade, two screwdrivers and 60 inches of cord.

Williams was testifying in a prison-murder trial. The records don't show much, but he did receive additional time for his apparent involvement in the incident.

By 1985, he was paroled but quickly arrested again on robbery charges; he eventually wound up back in the federal prison system. He was paroled from there on May 30 of last year, possibly because by that point he was suffering from full-blown AIDS and was not expected to live long.

Not four months later, the car he was in was pulled over on a routine traffic stop in Houston. Police found a .38-caliber pistol and a .357-caliber pistol, almost 100 rounds of ammunition and drugs.

In a bureaucratic snafu, Williams was released on bond without the federal parole system being made aware of his arrest. On October 10, the feds ordered him picked up. The job was given, as it always is in such cases, to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Created by George Washington in 1789, the Marshals Service is the country's oldest federal law-enforcement agency. The agency is charged with protecting courthouses, transporting prisoners, chasing federal fugitives, running the witness protection program and managing the businesses and assets seized in drug cases.

There are 28 deputy marshals in the Houston office, and they rotate through yearly tours doing the service's various jobs -- a year guarding the courts and moving prisoners, a year in the civil section serving subpoenas and summonses, and a year working with fugitives.

The year on the fugitive squad is what everyone, especially the younger marshals, looks forward to. "Protecting the courts is our main mission, but there's not a deputy here who will admit it," says Eric Wallenius, a Houston deputy marshal. "Everyone wants to be doing fugitives." (Although the court duty can get interesting -- both Wallenius and Baker spent weeks as close bodyguards to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.)

Those in the Marshals Service tend to sneer at the management-heavy ways of what they call "the three-letter agencies," like the FBI and the DEA. They revel in the relative freedom they enjoy, and see themselves as "blue-collar feds" who simply get the job done and sometimes do the dirty work and heavy lifting for more highfalutin agencies.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the fugitive detail. "We're pretty much left alone," Wallenius says. "They just hand us the files, say, 'Here are your cases, now go get them.' You don't have someone looking over your shoulder all the time. You can work as much or as little as you want, and you have to be self-motivated. If you're not, the other deputies are going to get mad at you -- not only the other guys on fugitive detail, but the guys working courts, who are going to be saying, 'Hey, don't waste my spot, man -- if you don't wanna work it, let me at it.' "

The initial files given deputies on the fugitive beat are likely to contain little more than a mug shot, some fingerprints and the paper ordering them to be picked up. It's difficult to tell at first just how tough an assignment will be.

Many of the people on the run are middle-management types from drug operations who've ignored an order to appear in court. They see prison time as a cost of doing business, and when they see a marshal at the door aren't likely to resist. Others, of course, are much more dangerous.

"Sometimes you'll get an easy one; it's hot, and so the address and other information is good, and you just hit the streets," Wallenius says. "Then you get to the guy, and you realize you're in over your head, that he's very dangerous, but you didn't know that because you went right in without learning too much about his background. With this guy Gary Robert Williams, if we'd have been able to find him right away, we could've been in trouble, because this guy was not afraid to shoot -- he was 51 years old, had severe health problems, and he's not going to care whether he lives or dies in a shootout."

Williams's file landed on Marshall Baker's desk in October 1997. (Baker went by the name of Marshall long before he entered the Marshals Service.) It's safe to say that self-motivation has never been a problem for Baker.

He came to the Marshals Service as part of Operation Shining Star, a recruitment drive launched to attract people who were thinking of getting out of the armed services. "Competition was fierce, and it came down to the best -- the Navy SEALS, the Green Berets, the Special Ops guys, MPs," says Dave Turner, a spokesman in the Marshals Service's Washington headquarters. "It was the first time we tried something like that, and it was a big success."

Baker was one of the class of 40, cut down from thousands of applicants, that entered the service through Operation Shining Star. The rough-edged, outside-the-mold feel of the Marshals Service drew him immediately.

"This is where the bullshit stops, the U.S. Marshals Service. They tell you right off that you will be fighting. They tell you that you will get punched in the head by a prisoner, that you will get your ass whipped at some point," he says. "The training is in shooting, fighting and survival.... We're the guys who are going through the doors when it's time to go in."

He says he was drawn to law enforcement after being mugged as a teenager in Rome. "I remember it vividly, what it felt like to be a victim," he says. "I just hate hard, violent crime. Putting a gun to someone's head -- that's the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard. And if you'd taken that gun away, the guy would never have had the guts or thought of doing it. The first thing I think of when I see a fugitive's file is the victim, and I just say, 'No matter what it takes, I will get you.' "

As might be expected from a guy who still sports his Airborne lapel pin, tough talk comes easily to Baker, even though at first glance he seems to be physically slight. "I tell every prisoner I'm guarding, 'I can be the nicest guy you ever met or I can be the biggest prick up your ass,' " he says. "If you went back to the cell right now and ask them if they know Marshall Baker, they'll say, 'Yeah, he's a real cool motherfucker, but just don't fuck with him.' "

Despite his obvious knowledge of how to fight dirty and disable people, Baker espouses a live-and-let-live philosophy; he hints at a libertarian view toward some drug laws, and makes it clear that some federal law-enforcement agencies think too much of themselves.

"We're sometimes called the bottom of the food chain by the three-letter agencies, and I say let 'em do it, man, bring it on. I don't let shit go to my head. I wear a suit, but that doesn't make me something special. I like to grab some of these other guys by the shirt and say, 'Come down off your pedestal, man, you're a government servant.' "

His aggressive attitude rubs some colleagues the wrong way. The Marshals Service tends to hire in spurts, so clear generational groupings can be discerned. Some of the older deputies can look pained when Baker starts in with what he admits is his "hoo-hah Army crap."

"We still have a lot of John Waynes, and if we're moving prisoners they'll be, like, 'Well, okay, you take this one, I'll take that one,' and so on," he says, sitting in front of a schematic he has drawn outlining much more organized methods for such a move. "But me, I'm the guru of the hut-hut ninja crap."

Even so, he's not above unorthodox methods. When the Georgia office notified Houston that one of its most dangerous fugitives was holed up here, Baker was assigned the case and gathered a complete tactical team to surround and storm the place. Just before going in, he pulled out a cell phone and dialed the house. "His girlfriend answered and said, 'Who is this?' " he says. "I said, 'It's Marshall Baker of the U.S. Marshals Service, and I'm out here with some friends, and I don't want to crack your door down.' There was a big silence. All the guys are cracking up behind me. And then the guy walks out with his hands up."

Baker loves fugitive work so much, he was constantly on call for the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force, a high-testosterone team of officers from 11 local jurisdictions who do nothing but arrest violent fugitives.

"He was always there for you -- he could've been out for 18 hours straight on something, and if someone needed backup, or if they needed a Spanish interpreter, he'd do it," says Steve Peterson, a Harris County sheriff's deputy and a task force member. "Those U.S. Marshals, most of them only have a year to catch crooks, and then they're back in court. When you know your time is short-lived, you really go at it, but he really went above and beyond."

Peterson saw Baker's methods up close, because he was the deputy marshal's main partner in the hunt for Gary Williams.

Baker had had plenty of hairy times on the fugitive beat -- including chasing an armed fugitive across eight lanes of Westheimer during morning rush hour in the Galleria area -- but no one he was chasing ever got in his head like Williams.

"This guy was a nightmare. I lost many hours of sleep on this one," he says. "You should never get so close to a case that you refer to your fugitive by his first name, but I got to the point where I felt like I knew everything about this guy."

He got the file, and after saying to himself, "Good God, I can't believe this guy is out on parole," he started calling around to other law-enforcement agencies. They all told him Williams was "a shooter," someone who would definitely be dangerous to corral. "Everyone said to me, this guy is either going to be dead in prison or in his arrest," Baker says. "They said, the guy's a nut, and he's not going back to prison."

He heard the same thing from Williams's family. "They told me he was not going back to prison alive, and it was best to leave him alone," Baker says.

Complicating matters was the fact that members of the family were bail bondsmen and bounty hunters and knew all of the tricks the feds use to track down fugitives. "I knew they were protecting him, and they weren't being straight with me, but they're a close family," he says. He knew Gary was probably out of state, but he also figured the fugitive would not be able to stay out of contact with his family.

Baker tried to concentrate on the five things that usually trip up a runner -- family, money, sex, drugs or friends. "I'd stay up all night trying to think what Gary would do. I'd close my eyes and the son of a bitch would be there. I'd try to think, if I was Gary, and I wanted drugs or sex, where would I go? I tried to think of who he would think were his friends.

"It got to the point," he says, "where he was my life. Guys were telling me, 'You've got to chill out.' I thought I was chilling out, but I could tell later that I had gotten really caught up with it."

He had spent too many hours fueled by coffee and sunflower seeds, sitting in vain at stakeouts where he thought Gary would show up. That's when he decided to back off a bit, and that's when the big call came.

Not only did it come on Easter weekend -- his partner Peterson, in fact, was out of town for the holiday -- but it came on a Saturday when one of his fellow deputy marshals was getting married.

"We had to get guys out of their tuxedos and into tac gear," he says. "We called everyone we could think of to help us out."

Two squads covered the homes of Williams's father, outside of Willis, and of the rest of his family, near Tomball. But the hours dragged on that Saturday with no sight of their man.

Eventually, as Easter Sunday dawned and family obligations loomed, Baker cut back to just four officers. He and a buddy took the watch at Willis.

Nothing much happened that Sunday, just more long hours bored to death in a car in the deep woods. Williams's father left once to pick up some supplies, but returned alone after an uneventful shopping trip.

"I said, 'We gotta call this off,' but [my colleague] told me I would kick myself if I did and Gary later showed up," Baker says.

Finally, at six that Sunday evening, the father drove off again. Trailing him on the deserted one-lane country roads ("You basically let him get out of sight for a while and then catch up and hope to God no one has gotten in or out of the car while you can't see him," Baker says), they followed him to a Shoney's Restaurant in Conroe.

"My partner grabbed eyesight of the vehicle and said, 'There's Daddy.' I looked over and I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Bro, that ain't Daddy, that's Gary.' "

Baker called "as many local backup units as I could," telling them to come in quietly so as not to set off a shootout in the crowded parking lot. Luckily for the officers, Williams and his father went into the restaurant for a leisurely lunch, allowing the pursuers to map out a plan to box in the car when the pair tried to leave.

And that's what they did. "It happened so quick I didn't have time to think," Baker says. "My partner had his M-16 out, and I had steel-toed boots that I crashed into the car door as loud as I could to startle them, and I just said, 'It's over, Gary, it's finally over.' "

The expected blaze of glory degenerated into a more pathetic scene. "He just started bawling like a baby," Baker says. "Then he said, 'You're so lucky I don't have a gun, because I would have shot you for sure.' Then he had a heart attack."

Just as Baker knew all about Williams, Williams had heard all about Baker from his family. "We were in the ambulance, and he's got restraints on, but he lunges at me and says, 'Just shoot me, Baker, just shoot me.' I said, 'Come on Gary, you know I'm not going to do that.' He got belligerent; then he started confessing to everything. He said he had robbed four banks in Phoenix while I was looking for him. He said he had come back to his family for one last visit before going out in a blaze of glory somewhere in a shootout because he knew if he went back to prison it would be for life."

His arrest came just days before he was to be named one of the Marshals Service's Top 15 fugitives, a move that no doubt would have given him pleasure.

After all the hours trying to put himself in Williams's shoes, Baker couldn't resist talking with him. "I stayed up all night rapping with Gary -- he's the most educated criminal I ever met, in terms of how the whole justice system was set up. He was a clever guy, and he thought he'd never be caught."

Williams stayed in a Conroe hospital for a couple of weeks. Eventually his family called Baker, asking to be allowed to make a bedside visit. "Normally that's not allowed, but I decided to let them. They knew I could've filed charges on them for hindering my case. In fact the Dad, when he called, he asked, 'Am I going to jail?' I just said no, I want to put this all behind me. The Dad was an old guy anyway.

"I like to think we have rules of engagement, and I hated to prey on and use the family like I did, but I knew they weren't being straight," he says. "But I also didn't feel it was worth government time and money to prosecute them for basically sticking up for a brother or a son."

Baker saw Williams one last time, when he escorted his prison ambulance to the federal medical facility in Fort Worth.

"We got there and unloaded him and I just said, 'Good luck, Gary.' He looked stone cold at me and just turned away without a word," Baker says. "That's the last I saw of him."

"The day I got him in custody, I thought I'd want to be throwing confetti, but instead you're just drained," he says. "With Gary, everyone knew how much it meant to me, so they had a little shindig when I went to work the next day. But it wasn't really a celebration for me. You realize it's done, and you realize you have to move on and put it behind you."

For now, after all the hours, all the tension, all the obsession, Gary Williams is fast becoming just another war story for Baker. While it may be a while before he gets caught up in another case like he was caught up in this one, his fascination with Williams has pretty much faded.

In fact, as he was being interviewed about the case, he had to admit that he had no idea whether Williams was still alive.

He isn't. He died June 3, a prisoner in a hospital in Fort Worth.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.


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