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Gary Gene TISON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Prison break
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: September 18, 1967 / July-August 1978
Date of birth: 1936
Victims profile: Jim Stiner (prison guard) / Marine Sgt. John Lyons, 24, his wife, their infant son and teenage niece / James and Margene Judge
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Arizona/Colorado, USA
Status: Sentenced to two consecutive life sentences on March 25, 1968. Escape July 30, 1978. Died of dehydration and exposure in the desert August 1978

photo gallery


The Tison Prison Break by Beverly Roath


On July 30, 1978, Gary Gene Tison and Randy Greenawalt had enough of their life sentences at the Arizona state prison. The imposing Tison, feared and respected by fellow inmates, had killed a policeman for shoving his wife.

Greenawalt, a pudgy man with a very high IQ, was doing time for serial-killing at least two, maybe four truck drivers, by shooting them in the head while they slept in their cabs.

Transferred to the low-security Trusty Unit for excellent behavior, Tison and Greenawalt pulled off a daring escape in broad daylight. They were aided by Gary's young and near-brainwashed sons Donny, Ricky and Ray. After suffering two flat tires on rough Arizona back roads, they kidnapped a family of four for their car, then shotgunned the whole family to death. A week later, a game warden discovered the sun-bloated corpses in the desert. One of the victims had crawled a thousand feet before dying.

Failing to obtain a plane in which to fly to Mexico as planned, the gang tried to drive across the border in a stolen van. The owners of the van, a couple vacationing in Colorado, were later found dead in the woods. On the night of August 10 they met by a hail of gunfire that killed Donny, the van was forced off the road. Randy, Ricky and Ray were captured and sent to prison, but Gary, who had sworn he wouldn't be taken alive, died of dehydration in the desert, while hiding only a few feet away from a building where he could have turned himself in.


Tison, Gary Gene and Greenawalt, Randy

In retrospect, considering the time he spent in jail, it seemed incredible that Gary Tison could command such loyalty from his family. Imprisoned at the age of 25 for robbery, he took advantage of a meeting with his wife to flee the county jail in Florence, Arizona. 

Recaptured and later paroled, Tison was charged with parole violation after passing a bad check in 1967. That April, en route to a court hearing, he overpowered a prison guard, handcuffed the officer, and shot him to death with his own service revolver. 

Conviction of first-degree murder earned Tison a life sentence, but he wasted no time on self-pity. In prison, he quickly made friends with serial slayer Randy Greenawalt, serving life on conviction for one of his four random murders. (The victims were truckers, picked out, Randy said, because one of their kind "roughed him up" years before.) Proud of his "special" status as a multiple killer, Greenawalt fell into line with Tison's new plan of escape. 

On July 30, 1978, Tison's son Ricky, 18, came to visit his father at the state prison in Florence. They were chatting in the fenced picnic area when two more of the Tison boys -- Raymond, 19, and Donald, 20 -- arrived with a basket of food for their father. Inside the lobby, one of the boys pulled a shotgun and covered the guards, demanding his father's release. Randy Greenawalt, meanwhile, had done his part by temporarily disabling the prison telephones and alarm system. 

Together, the five strolled so casually toward their getaway car that tower guards mistook them for departing visitors and let them go. Next day, the fugitives were stranded with a blow-out when 24-year-old Marine Sgt. John Lyons stopped to help. Traveling from Yuma to Nebraska with his wife, their infant son and teenage niece, Lyons hated to see anyone stuck in the desert, but his act of charity resulted in disaster. 

Lyons, wife Donelda, and son Christopher were killed in the first blast of gunfire from Tison and Greenawalt. The sergeant's niece, Teresa Tyson, age 16, was wounded in the hip and left to die, discovered by a group of searchers after she had bled to death. Scouring the countryside for Tison and company, authorities established a roadblock near Gary's home town of Casa Grande, Arizona. 

When the silver van approached, some hours later, it began to slow, the driver braking, but a blast of gunfire from the windows scattered officers as Tison and his gang swept past. A second roadblock waited five miles down the road, and this time deputies were ready, killing Donald Tison with their first barrage of fire. 

The battle raged for half an hour, Greenawalt and the surviving Tison boys surrendering as they ran out of ammunition, Gary taking off on foot across the desert. Officers discovered that the van belonged to James and Margene Judge, a pair of newlyweds from Colorado. Never found, they were included in the list of murder victims charged to Greenawalt and the incarcerated Tison brothers. 

Gary Tison, meanwhile, managed to elude pursuit until the final week of August, when his bloated, decomposing corpse was found outside the tiny town of Chuichu, Arizona. Unwounded in the final shootout with police, he had apparently succumbed to thirst and desert heat.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Tison v. Arizona, like Enmund v. Florida, was a 5-4 decision in which the United States Supreme Court qualified the rule it set forth in Enmund. Just as in Enmund, the Tison Court applied the proportionality principle to conclude that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for a felony murderer who was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibited a reckless indifference to human life.

This case stems from an infamous prison break during the summer of 1978. Gary Tison was serving a life sentence at the Arizona State Prison in Florence for killing a prison guard. His three sons plotted to break him and his cellmate, Randy Greenawalt, out of prison. On July 30, 1978, the sons entered the prison with a picnic basket full of guns, locked the visitors in a closet, and freed Gary Tison and Greenawalt. The group hid out in an isolated house for two days, and then they made their way toward Flagstaff in a white Lincoln. Along the way, one of the Lincoln's tires blew out, and so the group decided to flag down a car and steal it. Tison's son Raymond flagged down a passing car while the elder Tison, the other two Tison boys (Donald and Ricky), and Greenawalt lay in wait. Eventually the Lyons family—John, Donnelda, two-year-old Christopher and fifteen-year-old Theresa Tyson, John and Donnelda's niece—stopped to assist.

While Raymond was showing John Lyons the flat tire, the other Tisons and Greenawalt emerged from the brush. Raymond forced the Lyonses into the Lincoln, and then he and his brother Donald drove the Lincoln down a service road. Meanwhile, the other Tisons transferred their belongings into the Lyonses' car, keeping the Lyonses' money and guns. Gary Tison shot out the radiator on the Lincoln, and forced the Lyonses out. John Lyons began begging Gary Tison for his life; Gary Tison mentioned he was "thinking about" killing the Lyonses. Gary told Raymond and Ricky to go back to the Lyonses' car and get some water. According to Raymond, while they were gone, Gary started shooting the Lyonses; according to Ricky, the shooting began once they returned with the water. The two agreed that they had returned in time to watch the elder Tison and Greenawalt kill the Lyonses.

Several days later, the Tisons and Greenawalt were apprehended at a police roadblock. A firefight broke out. Donald Tison was killed at the scene; Gary Tison was wounded and escaped into the desert where he later died. The two remaining Tison brothers were tried individually for capital murder in the deaths of the Lyonses. The murder charges were predicated on Arizona's felony-murder statute, which provided that killings that occurred during a robbery or kidnapping were first-degree, death-eligible murder. The Tison brothers were convicted.

At a separate sentencing hearing, three aggravating factors were proved: the Tisons had created a grave risk of death to others, the murders were committed for pecuniary gain, and the murders were especially heinous, cruel, or depraved. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentences. Then the Supreme Court decided Enmund. The Tison brothers brought a collateral attack on their sentences, claiming that Enmund required their death sentences to be struck down. The Arizona Supreme Court rejected this argument, asserting that the dictates of Enmund had been satisfied because the intent requirement of Enmund could be inferred from the fact that death was a foreseeable result of participating in a dangerous felony.

Justice O'Connor concluded that the death penalty would be appropriate for a murder like the ones the Tisons had been convicted of if it could be shown that the defendant was a major participant in the underlying felony and had acted with reckless indifference to human life.

Later, the death penalties of Ricky and Raymond Tison were reduced to life sentences because they were both under twenty at the time of the crimes. Greenawalt was executed in 1997.


Shotgun-toting sons free dad, 2nd killer

By David L. Teibel - The Arizona Daily Star

July 31, 1978

Two convicted murderers escaped from the Arizona State Prison yesterday when three sons of one of them used three sawed-off shotguns and a silencer-equipped revolver to hold guards at bay.

The Department of Public Safety set up roadblocks in a 15-mile radius around the prison in Florence, and an airplane from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office joined DPS helicopters in an air search.

Being sought were killers Randy Greenawalt, 28, and Gary G. Tison, 42, and Tison's three sons, Ricky, 18, Donald, 22, and Raymond, 19, authorities said.

The two convicts, described as armed and dangerous, escaped from a trusty annex located outside the walled, main prison compound.

Tison was in the annex visiting area with his son Raymond when the other two sons walked past a checkpoint. They pulled the guns from an ice chest they carried before reaching a second checkpoint where they would have been searched, authorities said.

They then held two guards at bay while their father and Greenawalt were brought out, said Carolyn Robinson, a spokeswoman for the prison. A Pinal County sheriff's deputy said the sons disarmed the two guards.

No shots were fired, and there were no injuries during the breakout, Robinson said.

The five men then fled in a late-model green automobile, DPS said. The escape occurred shortly before 9:30 a.m., and authorities continued to search last night.

Authorities said they had information that one of Tison's relatives is a pilot. Allan Schmidt, a DPS spokesman, said it was thought the five men might have headed for an airport to continue their escape by air.

He speculated that they might try to get to Marana Air Park or the Eloy Municipal Airport, which have the only airstrips in the area long enough to allow a light plane carrying five people to take off.

A brown car with four men in it was stopped by DPS officers after it was seen driving around in Marana Air Park yesterday afternoon. The four were released after officers determined they were not involved in the prison break.

Greenawalt, of Thornton, Colo., was convicted in 1974 in Coconino County of the murder of a truck driver, Robinson said, adding he was serving a life sentence with no parole for 25 years. Greenawalt worked as a prison clerk.

Tison, of Casa Grance, was serving a life sentence with no parole for the 1967 kidnapping and murder of a prison guard during another escape attempt. Before the murder, he was serving a one-to-two-year term for embezzlement. Tison worked as a prison cook, Robinson said.

Greenawalt, according to authorities, is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 195 pounds. He has a stocky build, a fair complexion, and dark brown hair and blue eyes.

Tison is 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds. He has a heavy build, a fair complexion, and blonde hair and blue eyes. Both escapees are Caucasian.


Prison escapees still at large; 'serious security breach' cited

By John DeWitt and Armando Durazo - The Arizona Daily Star

August 1, 1978

The two murders who escaped Sunday from the Arizona State Prison with the armed aid of one's three sons used a dirt road east of the prison to elude pursuers. The daring escape was blamed yesterday on a "serious security breach."

The murderers and the three sons were reported traveling east on the Kelvin-Kearny Road shortly after the 9:30 a.m. prison break. A brigade of state troopers in helicopters, an airplane, and patrol cars failed to find any sign of them.

The escapees, Gary G. Tison, 42, and Randy Greenawalt, 28, both described as armed and dangerous, fled the prison when two of Tison's sons walked into a visitor's lobby with a cardboard box (initially described as an ice chest) loaded with three sawed-off shotguns and a silencer-equipped revolver that they used to overpower guards.

Tison, prison authorities said, was with his son, Ricky, 18, when the other two passed one checkpoint. Before reaching a second checkpoint, they pulled out the weapons and freed their father and Greenawalt.

A late-model green car was used in the escape, which according to the Department of Publilc Safety, was seen on the Kelvin-Kearny Road moments after the break.

Despite a statewide manhunt yesterday and Sunday, the five men were still at large last night. Authorities theorized, however, that they had not left the state.

The DPS said yesterday the men could have taken several roads from the dirt road they were spotted on.

"They could have taken any road north or south of it," said Lt. George Elias of the DPS. "By the time we got the call they could have traveled as many as 10 miles."

A dragnet around the prison until 1:30 p.m. Sunday failed to find any signs of the men or the car, he said.

Meanwhile, Arizona Corrections Director Ellis MacDougall blamed lax security and shortcomings in the design of the trusty annex where the men escaped from.

MacDougall, in a Phoenix news conference, said Greenawalt's presence in the security control center of the prison's annex outside the main walls of the prison was a serious breach of security.

"A prisoner should never have been in the control center," he said. "It was our own security that was lax."

MacDougall has asked prison Warden Harold Cardwell to explain why Greenawalt was in the control center during the escape.

When Cardwell was asked to explain to reporters, he replied: "I'm not going to explain anything to you, if you want the answers ask the director (MacDougall)."

The prison break occurred when Tison's sons thrust shotguns to their father through round speaking holes in glass partitions that separate inmates from visitors, he said.

Greenawalt, he said, kept eight armed guards and six visitors at bay and herded them into a closet while two of Tison's sons walked out.

MacDougall said the five men "nonchalantly" walked out of the prison and aroused no suspicions from a tower guard who watched them get into a Ford LTD and drive away.

He said the guard was not suspicious because the incident occurred inside the building and out of the guard's sight. One of the men walked out twirling the car keys on a finger.

MacDougall sais Tison and Greenawalt were being held in the annex because they had refused to participate in a work stoppage last year and "because other inmates had it in for them."

Prison authorities said no shots were fired during the escape. No one was injured.

MacDougall said one of the guards escaped from the closet by punching a hole in the ceiling and crawling through a ceiling space to the control center where he sounded the alarm.

The DPS said they received the alert 15 minutes after the prison break because the men "cut the electrical wires" to the building.

Corrective actions to prevent further escapes, MacDougall said, were taken yesterday, but he did not give specifics.


Escapees linked to 3 deaths

The Arizona Daily Star

August 8, 1978

QUARTZITE (AP) — Two convicted murderers who escaped from the Arizona State Prison last month may have ambushed a family of three found shotgunned to death in the desert, authorities said yesterday.

A 17-year-old niece who left Yuma with the victims was missing and believed to be a hostage, authorities said.

A game warden found the three bodies Sunday in an abandoned 1969 Lincoln Continental a mile from U.S. 95, about 120 miles west of Phoenix.

The car may have been used by the fugitives when they fled the prison, authorities said, adding they thought the killers may have left in the family's 1977 Mazda.

They said the family may have stopped to help the killers.

The victims apparently were shot repeatedly as they huddled in the rear of the car, the boy standing between his mother's legs, Yuma County Sheriff's Capt. Cecil Crowe said.

He identified the victims as Sgt. John F. Lyons, 24, a U.S. Marine assigned to the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station; his wife, Danelda, 23; and their son, Christopher, 2.

They were killed July 31 or early Aug. 1, shortly after leaving on a vacation to Las Vegas, Nev., and to Fremont, Neb., to visit Lyons' mother, Yuma County Attorney Mike Irwin said.

The missing girl is Teresa Tyson, daughter of Joanne Tyson of Las Vegas who is believed to be Lyons' sister, Crowe said. "We believe she was taken hostage," the officer said. "We're hoping that we find her unharmed."

Eighteen expended 16-gauge and 20-gauge shotgun shells were found around the car, which had a rear window blown out, Crowe said.

Gary Tison, 43, of Casa Grande, and Randy Greenawalt, 28, of Thornton, Colo., both serving life for murder, fled the state prison in Florence on July 30, when three persons authorities believe were Tison's sons pulled out sawed-off shotguns and locked eight guards in a closet.

"A Loncoln Continental similar to the one they found the bodies in was in possession of one of the Tison boys prior to the escape," said Sgt. Alan Schmidt of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

The car had a badly damaged tire, leading Crowe to speculate that Lyons stopped to help the fugitives before the family was killed.

There was no known relation between the Tison and Tyson families.


3 captured, one killed in shootout

By Aarmando Durazo, Gene Nail and John Rawlinson - The Arizona Daily Star

August 12, 1978

Convicted killer Gary Tison eluded searchers last night following a pre-dawn shootout yesterday in which one of his sons was shot to death and three other fugitive members of the group were arrested.

Colorado and Arizona authorities were looking into the possibility that the five men, already wanted for the murder of three persons near Quartzsite, may have killed a Texas couple in Colorado.

Donald Tison, 20, one of three of Tison's sons who helped their father escape from the Arizona State Prison July 30, was killed in the shootout. Two other sons, Raymond, 19, and Ricky, 18, were captured along with Randy Greenawalt, 29, a convicted murderer who escaped with Tison.

In Tucson yesterday afternoon, police investigated a citizen's report that a man matching Tison's description boarded a freight train near the search area — 20 miles south of Casa Grande — and was headed into the city.

Police sent six squad cars and a helicopter to the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. switching yard on East 22nd Street to check incoming freight trains, but Tison was not found on any.

Early last night, searchers also surrounded a fruit orchard near Maricopa — 30 miles south of Phoenix — after receiving several reports that a man matching Tison's description was in it. That search also failed to find him.

Tison, 42, was being hunted by more than 200 heavily armed Arizona law officers on horseback and in airplanes and helicopters after he fled following a shootout at a roadblock south of Casa Grande early yesterday.

Officials said they suspected that Tison, his sons, and Greenawalt killed the Texas couple during their 13-day attempt to avoid the manhunt.

The Department of Public Safety said the van they were driving when the shootout began was stolen from the Texas couple.

"The obvious conclusion is that they (the couple) are dead," said one DPS officer.

"But we can't confirm that yet. We haven't found the bodies."

Other lawmen said it would be "highly unlikely" that the couple, Mr. and Mrs. James Judd (that was later corrected to Mr. and Mrs. James Judge Jr.), would be found alive.

Frank Reyes, Pinal County sheriff, conceded during the manhunt that there may never be a stolen vehicle report filed on the van "if the owners had been murdered."

A DPS spokesman said the Judds, of Amarillo, Texas, were supposed to drive to Colorado for their honeymoon. They said officials have talked with relatives who told them the couple would not have driven through Arizona on their way.

Tison, his sons and Greenawalt were wanted in the shotgun slayings of Marine Sgt. John F. Lyons, his wife, Donnelda, and their 22-month-old son near Yuma.

The men were also sought for the kidnapping of Lyons' niece, Teresa Tyson, 15, of Las Vegas, Nev.

During the afternoon yesterday, Yuma County sheriff's deputies found the body of Tyson in the desert near Quartzsite, about one-half mile from where Lyons and his family were killed.

The Associated Press quoted Reyes as saying the information on the grave's location came from one of the fugitives.

Donald Tison was killed when he drove a silver and blue can through a roadblock set up on State Route 15 shortly after 3 a.m. His brothers and Greenawalt were captured after the van slid into a ditch.

The elder Tison, however, was not seen running from the wreckage, but officials theorize he fled fronm the shootout because they found some tracks leading from the van. They believe he was in the van.

Pinal County Attorney Roy Mendoza said yesterday that he could not comment on whether the elder Tison was in the van during the shootout.

"At this point we can't comment on that," he said. "You know there is ongoing investigation and we're still trying to find Mr. Gary Tison."

Tison was believed to be hiding in a 25-mile square area in the northern section of the Papago Indian Reservation. Officials said there were many washes, canyons and thick bushes that could be used as hiding places.

The DPS said Tison was believed to have a 45-caliber automatic and another weapon.

Pinal County sheriff's detective Dave Harrington said "there wasn't much time to think about it" when the shooting began at the roadblock.

After the trucks were set up on the road, he said, four deputies backed into the desert and when the van was seen firing at the deputies' trucks, the fire was returned and the van smashed through the roadblock.

After the van stopped, Harrington said, three men walked out and lay on the ground and said nothing.

He said deputies found three shotguns, one high-powered rifle and about six handguns in the van.

Reyes said the men broke through two roadblocks before they were captured. He said the roadblocks were set up about five to six miles apart.

Reyes said the men in the van slowed down at the first roadblock about 12 miles west of Arizona City, then plowed through it, firing their weapons.

They were followed by two squad cars until they finally surrendered at the second roadblock. Officials estimated that the van was traveling at about 95 mph when it crashed through the second roadblock.

Deputies said they never saw the elder Tison run from the wreckage.


Tison's body found

Corpse half a mile from shootout site

By John Rawlinson and Armando Durazo - The Arizona Daily Star

August 23, 1978

Escaped killer Gary Tison's body was discovered yesterday half a mile from the scene of a shootout that killed one of his sons.

The body was found about 7:30 a.m. near a chemical plant in an area that searchers had gone through four times a week before during an intense search for the Arizona State Prison escapee.

After an autopsy yesterday, a physician estimated that Tison had been dead seven to 10 days. Searchers had looked in the area Aug. 11 and 15.

Pinal County Sheriff Frank Reyes said searchers may have walked past the body without noticing it because it was hidden by dense brush.

Tison's badly decomposed body was discovered by Ray Thomas, an employee of the Papago Chemicals Inc. plant. The plant is four miles southwest of the village of Chuichu on the Papago reservation south of Casa Grande.

Sgt. Allan Schmidt, Department of Public Safety information officer, said his office had positively identified the body as that of Tison, 42, through fingerprints.

Dr. Thomas B. Jarvis, with the Maricopa County coroner's office, conducted an autopsy yesterday and said he would "speculate" that the cause of death was heat stroke because of the absence of injuries. He said Tison did not die of a heart attack.

Thomas said he and two other employees had noticed an odor in the area the past three or four days and, after emptying garbage following their graveyard shift yesterday, he discovered Tison lying face up under brush in a small wash about 100 yards from the plant.

The three men immediately drove to a telephone and called Sells police, who notified other law enforcement agencies.



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