Published in the Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1979
Crime Spree Ends Struggle to Keep Family Together
BY WILLIAM C REMPEL, Times Staff Writer
The warm Arizona night was as black as the mood inside the orange Mazda that bumped along the washboard surface on the desert road.
Five sweaty men sat, wordless, in the cramped sedan. Three were young men, brothers, still shaken by what they had witnessed just minutes before: the shotgun murder of a vacationing young couple and two children.
Riding along with the brothers were the two men who had pulled the triggers. In the uneasy quiet the brothers struggled to accept a troubling reality: their father was one of those men, was one of the killers.
Less than 48 hours earlier the three brothers had helped their father and another inmate escape from the state prison in Florence. It was an act of love and loyalty — and the most daring prison break in modern Arizona history, accomplished in broad daylight without a shot being fired.
But the brothers had not counted on murder-or on their family becoming known overnight as the “Tison Gang.”
In the 12 days after the escape, eight people would die: one of the brothers, their father and six innocent victims.
Now, though neither did any of the actual killings, the two surviving brothers face execution for their part in the bloody spree.
Ricky Tison, 20, and Raymond Tison, 19, have been convicted of murder and sentenced to the gas chamber under a state law holding them responsible for the acts of the men they conspired to free from prison–their father, Gary Tison, 42, and Randy Greenawalt, 30, (the latter also was sentenced to death).
Appeal is automatic in Arizona capital cases.
If carried out, the sentence would mean the virtual end of the Tison family–leaving only the boys’ mother, Dorothy.
Through the long years of her husband’s imprisonment, Dorothy Tison struggled, with untiring determination, to keep her family together. Now she is a helpless witness to its disintegration.
“You know, I’ve always been able to take care of those kids, but now I can’t,” said Mrs. Tison, who looks older than her 39 years.
“That death penalty really has me scared. And I can’t stop worrying–that day won’t come unless someone says, ‘Hey, you can come take your kids home now.’”
It is the bitterest of ironies that Dorothy Tison’s very success at keeping her family together–against all reasonable odds–has led to a calamity beyond her control.
For, from that bond of family loyalty emerged the Tison Gang–and the tragic ending to this unconventional family love story.
Dorothy Stanford was the 17-year-old daughter of hard working, devoutly religious parents in 1957 when she married Gary Gene Tison, 21, the son of a hard-drinking father with a criminal record.
Their wedding took place shortly after Gary was paroled after spending about two years in Arizona State Prison on an armed robbery conviction. His mother had written officials:
“If (he) stays in that evil place… it will make (his) young heart turn into stone.”
A psychiatrist’s report a few years later wound note that, on Gary’s release in 1956, he had “no intention to give up crime” but that the “love of a girl converted him.”
By the end of 1959 Dorothy and Gary Tison had three sons–Donald Joe, Ricky Wayne and Raymond Curtis–each born 10 months apart in the cotton town of Casa Grande, south of Phoenix.
The boys learned early to stick together. Dorothy wouldn’t tolerate fighting among them.
“A family has to have love, and if you’re fighting, you aren’t loving” she told them. “Brothers don’t fight each other; they stick together.”
The boys also stuck with their father–though by 1961 he was back in state prison to remain for virtually the rest of his life.
Almost every weekend for about 15 years Dorothy and the boys traveled to Florence to spend visiting hours with Gary.
By all accounts, he tried to be a model father despite being incarcerated. Gary encouraged and directed his sons from behind bars. When Ricky wanted to quit school, Gary and Dorothy first held a family council on the matter in the prison visiting room.
When Dorothy objected to Donald joining the Marine Corps at age 17, Gary talked her into signing the authorization papers.
“I was dead set against it,” Dorothy recalled. “He was so young and I was afraid they might find some war to send him into.”
“I said, ‘What if he gets killed?’ Gary said, ‘Dorothy, you can get killed just walking down the street.’”
When he was discharged from the Marines three years later, the first thing the boy did was visit his father in prison wearing his uniform–to show his father his good-conduct medals.
Gary Tison even disciplined his sons from prison. As the boys got older, for example, he would have Dorothy withhold car privileges or suspend use of the hunting rifle.
Fellow inmates and prison officials remember how he bragged about his boys–even about their school test scores.
The ritual of family prison visits began in 1961 when the boys were aged three, two and one.
Gary again had been convicted of armed robbery, this time after a series of holdups in which he used a machine gun stolen from the Casa Grande National Guard Armory.
Dorothy took care of her boys on a secretary’s salary–all the while supporting Gary’s efforts to gain parole.
In the summer of 1966 Tison finally returned to his family on parole after a five-year absence. Relatives remember a year of good times.
“Gary was just like a kid. He’d play cops ‘n’ robbers with us and games and little jokes” recalled a nephew.
The games ended in 1967 when writing a bad check cost Tison his parole. Shortly afterward Tison killed a prison guard who escorted him to a court appearance. Suddenly, what was to have been a prison stay of about six months became a life term.
Dorothy tried desperately to shield her children from the news.
She kept the TV turned off. She would rush outside to confront the parade of visiting police investigators before they got to the door, leaving the boys shut inside and, she hoped, protected from the ordeal.
School children in Casa Grande were coached by teachers to be nice to the boys and to avoid asking about their notorious father. Dorothy even moved to Los Angeles briefly to shield her children.
But, Dorothy sadly observes, “You can’t hide things from children–they know”. She finally had to sit down and tell them the facts.
Ricky locked himself in the bathroom for most of the day crying: “I want my daddy… I want my daddy…”
For the next 11 years the family could gather only on weekends, sharing their limited time together in a room full of inmates and other strangers.
The boys grew into their teens and developed interests consistent with the culture of Arizona youths–cars, girls, beer drinking and guns.
“You would have expected boys with their family troubles to be into dealing dope and stealing cars, but not these boys,” said a longtime friend. “They were just the sweetest kids you can imagine.”
Donald, the eldest, was never short of girlfriends, but more than one romance collapsed when word of his father’s reputation reached the girls’ parents.
Ricky and Raymond were more interested in cars and guns than girls. Both helped out around the Casa Grande service station owned by Dorothy’s father, R.E. Stanford, and Ricky, in particular, became a wizard at car repairs.
Their interest in guns was intense. Ricky could recite gun and ammunition characteristics the way some youngsters rattle off baseball batting averages.
Before the prison break the most serious trouble in which any of the boys had been involved was the petty theft of beer from a Casa Grande store.
Ricky and Raymond had to clean up six miles of highway litter as penalty. Two passersby, noting the diligence of their efforts, stopped to offer them jobs.
Until a few months before the escape, Donald was studying for a career in law enforcement at Central Arizona College. One of his instructors–in a class heavily attended by off-duty prison guards–was a retired Casa Grande policeman who twice helped arrest the boy’s father.
Meanwhile, Gary was a model prisoner. In the mid-1970s he set up a prison television station, organized inmate entertainment and edited La Roca, the prison newspaper.
He refused to join an inmate strike in 1977. He went from cell to cell, at some personal risk, trying to talk other inmates into returning to their prison jobs. He was rewarded with transfer to the medium security wing.
That wing was formerly the women’s prison, a spacious facility with green grass and an outdoor picnic area for inmates and visitors.
A friend recalls that Dorothy reacted to the move “like a new bride. She was bubbling.” Her weekly visits became picnics with Gary, sometimes featuring her homemade fried chicken and rum cake.
The transfer also seemed to bolster Dorothy’s hope that one day her husband would earn his freedom again.
“She never lost hope,” said Jim Collins, a family friend and Dorothy’s employer for the past 10 years.
“People told me Gary didn’t have a chance in hell to get paroled after killing the guard. But Dorothy believed he could, and her role was to keep the family together to that day.”
As the boys grew older they visited their father by themselves. Alone with Gary, the boys talked about a day when the family would be reunited–perhaps in a foreign country.
On visiting day July 30, 1978, the boys arrived early with a picnic box filled with sawed-off shotguns.
The breakout was carried out with precision. Raymond entered the prison first and met his dad in the visitor picnic area, a short distance from the reception lobby.
They were together there when Ricky and Donald entered the prison and walked into the reception lobby with the lethal picnic box. Before the box could be searched, the pair pulled out the shotguns and took over the lobby and the adjacent control room. It took only seconds.
The glassed-in control room housed the communications equipment, security alarms and electronic door controls for the entire medium security wing.
Greenawalt, a prison trusty, was in the control room as planned when the Tison brothers arrived. The boys passed him a shotgun and silencer-equipped pistol through a slot in the glass partition. Moments later they were joined by Raymond and his father.
One by one, the guards and a few prison visitors were escorted at gunpoint to a storage room. The door was locked behind them and the electricity to the building shut off.
The escapees were so mannerly that one woman visitor said later she thought the Tison boys were guards escorting them to “some sort of meeting.”
Gary, the boys and Greenawalt then walked out the front door.
An armed, but unsuspecting tower guard looked down from his vantage point and saw the men. He noted Ricky nonchalantly twirling his key ring, decided nothing was amiss, and returned his gaze to the prison compound.
The men drove away unnoticed, switched cars at the Florence Hospital parking lot and disappeared onto the back roads of rural Arizona.
Dorothy heard of the breakout soon afterward when her mother called from Casa Grande, frantic after hearing the news bulletin.
“I said, ‘Mother, it can’t be true,’” Dorothy recalled. Then she turned on the TV set and every radio in the house to listen for word of her family.
There were plenty of sightings reported, most of them erroneous. The fleeing Tisons avoided the main highways as they worked their way west, stopping once to change a flat tire.
But a second flat tire on a desolate stretch of highway north of Yuma disabled their Lincoln Continental, now minus a useable spare.
In the midnight darkness they waited, guns drawn, for the first set of headlights and a new getaway car.
When the Mazda was stopped, the occupants–a young Yuma couple with their baby son and teen-aged niece–were forced into the Lincoln and both cars were driven off down a dirt road into the desert.
After a brief pause to transfer guns and supplies to the Mazda, the hostages were driven in the Lincoln deeper into the desert. The boys were told to walk back to the Mazda and retrieve a water jug for the family. When the boys reached the Mazda they heard the shotgun blasts begin.
At least 18 rounds were fired. Gary, accompanied by Greenawalt, returned to the Mazda and his sons with the comment: “it sure is hard to kill a Lincoln.”
It was nearly a week before the bodies were found. Investigators found the man, John Lyons, sprawled on the ground outside the Lincoln with shotgun wounds in his head and chest. His left ear was still in the car.
Lyons’ wife and 22-month-old baby were in the back seat. Close-range shotgun blasts had literally blown the toddler’s head away as the boy stood between his mother’s knees. The woman was shot in the head, back and chest.
The teenaged girl’s body wasn’t immediately found. She had been shot in the side and left for dead, her pelvis shattered by the blast. She managed to crawl nearly a quarter of a mile toward the lights on the highway, before she died.
Discovery of the bodies caused an explosion of public anger and demands for vengeance.
Everyone from the man-on-the-street to the governor called for the death penalty. “Society has had it,” said a newspaper editorial.
The gang, meanwhile, had eluded a statewide dragnet and was hiding out in a forest in southern Colorado.
But Gary decided a new getaway car was needed and told his sons he was going out on “a reconnaissance mission.” When he returned he was driving a blue and silver van.
In Amarillo, Tex, the families of a honeymooning couple were worried. They hadn’t heard from the new bride and groom who had promised to call from their southern Colorado honeymoon cabin before the weekend.
The couple was to drive their blue and silver van into Denver on the weekend for an exhibition football game. Their 20-yard-line seats were vacant at kickoff.
At that moment their bodies were concealed in a shallow grave in remote country near Pagosa Springs. Their bodies weren’t found until winter when a captured Greenawalt directed authorities to the site.
Little remained to identify the bodies–except a wedding band.
One Tison son would say later:
“I saw a side of my father I never saw before. But I believe most of that side came from being so long in prison.”
Raymond called the murders “senseless.” He said his dad “promised us that no one would get hurt.”
The Tisons’ flight from the law ended before dawn on Aug. 11, on a rural road just south of Casa Grande-less than 40 miles from the prison from which they escaped 12 days earlier.
They were en route to Mexico in a blue and silver van, heading south through the Papago Indian Reservation, when a police roadblock suddenly loomed ahead.
Donald, who was driving, slowed as they approached the pink-glowing flares. Gary fired a pair of errant shotgun blasts as startled deputies and Donald accelerated past the blockade.
A 10-mile chase down the dark, two-lane road ended amid gunfire at a second roadblock. Gary shouted to the others: “Okay, every man for himself.”
And he ran out into the dark desert alone.
When a spotlight-equipped helicopter arrived about 20 minutes later, Ricky and Raymond were found side by side near the van. They were armed but did not offer resistance. One at a time they were ordered to walk to police cars on the road.
Greenawalt, also armed, tried fleeing into the darkness, but dropped to the desert floor when a deputy sheriff fired a rifle shot over his head. He, too, surrendered without resistance.
There was no sign of Gary.
In a police car not far from where Donald laid dead, Ricky–handcuffed, stripped of his clothes, splattered with his brother’s blood and wrapped in a blanket–talked to investigators.
Why did he help his father escape?
“Dad was in there for a long time–you might think it’s old-fashioned, but we wanted him out.”
Was it worth it?
“Yeah, just to have a father again for a few days makes it all worthwhile.”
The boys saw their mother–for the first time since the prison escape–at a court appearance later, and broke into tears. “Mom, we’re sorry about Donnie,” Raymond cried.
By then an aerial force of helicopters and airplanes had reinforced men on foot, horseback and in four-wheel-drive trucks searching the rugged ridges of the Tat Momoli Mountains for the burly, 265-pound Gary Tison.
There was little relief from the soaring temperatures in the brush and cactus-covered country, but Gary apparently was able to find refuge in caves or abandoned mine shafts. More than 300 lawmen scoured the terrain for a week without finding him.
In his Yuma jail cell some time after his arrest, Raymond couldn’t sleep. He worried aloud about his father’s chances for survival.
“I hope my dad makes it,” he confided to a woman inmate in a neighboring cell.
But he seemed to shudder at the thought of his father hiding in the rocks with “all those snakes.” He later awoke complaining of nightmares.
Three days later Gary Tison’s body was found. He had died of heat stroke under a blazing sun after surviving for about seven days.
A sock filled with cactus berries, squeezed for their moisture, and a loaded .45 were found near his body.
“I saw the boys next morning. They were so depressed and taking it hard,” Dorothy recalled. They told her:
“We were hoping so hard that he had gotten away.”
And Dorothy added later:
“My heart really goes out to the families of the victims. I lost my husband and son. I know what suffering they’re going through.”
The courts wasted little time. Motions for the venue changes were quickly dismissed.
The brothers were tried in Florence on escape charges first and received sentences of 34 years to life. Greenawalt received a life sentence (he previously was serving life for two murders).
In Yuma, the three were tried separately. Jury selection was swift although the demand for jurors taxed supply in the sparsely populated country. Judge Douglas Keddie said prospective jurors would not be dismissed simply on the grounds they had formed opinions on the case.
“If they tell me they can set aside that opinion and rule on the evidence, I have to believe them,” he said. “After all, that’s what I do.”
In none of the trials did jury selection take more than a couple of hours during a morning session.
Dorothy Tison has not missed a court appearance by her sons since their arrests, taking repeated leaves from her $1,000-a-month job with a Phoenix insurance agency.
She underwent a hysterectomy just a few weeks before the Florence trial, but she was in the courtroom from opening day. A slight woman, even at her normal weight of 115, she is now down to 100 pounds.
“I’m tired,” she confessed. “I’d like to go bury my head. But I can’t — not now. The boys need me.”
Dorothy said she is determined to be in court with her sons throughout their trials (they may still face charges in Colorado) “because I may be the only friend they have in the courtroom – and I want them to know they’ve got my moral support.”
Clearly, she feels that the press has not been a friend.
“The press tried and convicted my boys before they ever stood trial,” she said, pointing to an Arizona columnist who raged that the boys were “up to their animal armpits in daddy’s crimes.”
Dorothy’s mother, Mrs. Vallie Stanford, a deeply religious woman who wouldn’t permit her grandsons to drink, smoke or swear in her house, also criticized press treatment of her family.
“Not all the vultures are in the sky,” she snorted when TV camera crews descended on the family.
And Mrs. Stanford defended the boys:
“We don’t know what happened that they were led astray, but from the time they broke those men out, everything else was beyond their control.”
“Those boys loved their father enough to break him out of jail, but they didn’t murder anyone.”
In the hallway outside the Yuma Country Superior Courtroom No. 1, three youths the age of the Tison boys debated Ricky’s case on the Friday afternoon his trial recessed.
“He didn’t kill anybody,” said a pretty, longhaired coed.
“Yeah, but if he didn’t break those people out of prison, no one would’a been killed,” countered a male companion.
“Yeah! He’s guilty,” snapped the second boy.
At the door Ricky, in handcuffs, was about to walk back to the Yuma County Jail, not more than a dozen steps behind the old courthouse, where he would spend the weekend in a cell.
He smiled a big, dimpled smile at his mother, sniffed at the runny nose that had bothered him throughout the trial and turned to go with his armed escort.
Dorothy reached out a hand that didn’t quite touch the boy’s shoulder and said softly:
# # #
The Tison brothers remain prisoners of the same Arizona State Prison from which they set free their inmate father and his friend more than 33 years ago. Both are serving multiple and consecutive life terms. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision upheld their original death sentences (which were later reduced to life without parole by Arizona courts).
But Justice William J. Brennan argued that for two teenaged accomplices who hurt no one in the brutal crime spree, leniency was in order. Openly critical of the death penalty, the justice considered this case another example of flawed and inconsistent application of capital punishment in America.
These are selected excerpts from Brennan’s 1987 dissent in Tison v. Arizona:
“This case… involved accomplices who did not kill. (They were punished) for the sins of their father.
“The (Tison) brothers neither killed nor attempted or intended to kill anyone… (They were) sentenced to death for the intentional acts of others… and over which they had no control.
“(Their) presence at the scene of the murders, and their participation in flagging down… and robbing and guarding the family, indicate nothing whatsoever about their subjective appreciation that their father and his friend would suddenly decide to kill the family.
“Neither son had a prior felony record. Both lived at home with their mother, and visited their father whom they believed was ‘a model prisoner,’ each week. They did not plan the breakout or escape…
(Brennan wrote that the breakout was the father’s plan, plotted over the span of a year and presented to his sons at the last minute.)
“The sons conditioned their participation on their father’s promise that no one would get hurt (and at first) their father kept his word.”
And, finally, Brennan cited a psychological report noting the role of family pressures on the boys:
“These most unfortunate youngsters were born into an extremely pathological family and were exposed to one of the premier sociopaths of recent Arizona history… I do believe that their father, Gary Tison, exerted a strong, consistent, destructive but subtle pressure upon these youngsters and I believe that (the sons) got committed to an act which was essentially ‘over their heads.’ Once committed, it was too late…”