Defense takes aim at witness in NM murder trial

September 18, 2013 - 1:34 AM
Inmate Escape

FILE - This Aug. 19, 2010 file photo provided by the Mohave County Sheriff's Office shows Casslyn Mae Welch, cousin and girlfriend of John McCluskey, an escaped Arizona inmate accused of killing an Oklahoma couple while on the run. Welch says their run from the law turned into a "huge catastrophe" when an Oklahoma couple they had carjacked less than two hours earlier ended up dead. (AP Photo/Mohave County Sheriff's Office, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Defense attorneys took aim Tuesday at a key prosecution witness in the capital murder trial of a former Arizona fugitive accused of killing an Oklahoma couple, saying it was the witness who made the decision to target the victims for their pickup truck and travel trailer.

Casslyn Welch, the cousin and girlfriend of defendant John McCluskey, spent part of her second day on the stand being grilled by the defense about interviews following her arrest in which she detailed the August 2010 abduction and killing of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla.

Attorney Gary Mitchell played portions of the interviews for jurors and asked Welch why she initially told investigators one thing but has since shifted the blame to McCluskey.

Welch told him she wasn't denying her responsibility or her actions.

"I was trying to make things a little bit more lenient for the guys because I wasn't planning on being around anymore," Welch said, referring to the statements she made to investigators.

The defense accused Welch of lying under oath and argued that her testimony was meant to satisfy prosecutors so she could receive a lighter sentence.

Mitchell said Welch's attitude is "totally the opposite" in the interviews compared to her measured testimony over the last two days. The interviews, he said, show her "mean-spiritedness."

When questioned about her repeated derogatory references to the victims, Welch acknowledged showing no remorse or sympathy when she was arrested. She pleaded guilty last year to charges stemming from the carjacking and slayings and faces life in prison.

Welch teared up Monday when she testified about the killings, and Mitchell brought her to tears again Tuesday when he accused her of lying to authorities about the relationship she had with McCluskey. The two often referred to each other as husband and wife, but she told investigators they did not have a sexual relationship.

"You can cry and get really emotional about this, but it's a lie," Mitchell said.

The defense plans to continue cross-examining Welch on Wednesday.

McCluskey is being tried on federal carjacking and murder charges. If convicted, he faces either life in prison or the death penalty.

The slayings happened three days after Welch said she helped McCluskey and two other inmates escape from a privately-run, medium security prison near Kingman. One of the inmates was caught a day later in Colorado, but Welch, McCluskey and his former prison bunkmate Tracy Province sparked a nationwide manhunt.

She told jurors the trio decided to commandeer a truck and travel trailer so they could "get off the grid." They spotted the Haases on Aug. 2, 2010. The retired couple had just stopped for lunch at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico state line.

At gunpoint, the couple was forced to drive west until being ordered off Interstate 40 and onto a lonely two-lane road. The truck and trailer eventually turned around and stopped. Welch said she and Province were outside the trailer when gunshots rang out. Prosecutors and testimony over the last three weeks of trial point to McCluskey as the triggerman.

Mitchell said it was Welch's decision to ditch the trailer in the desert and burn it. She told investigators the trio had to get rid of the evidence and there was plenty of whiskey in the Haases' coolers to light the fire.

Welch testified that she was first to splash some of the liquor around the trailer and that McCluskey took over before using his lighter and a paper bag to ignite it.

Prosecutor Greg Fouratt asked Welch whether she and McCluskey discussed the killings after leaving the smoldering wreckage.

"He told me his story, his side of it. He said he knows he'll have to pay for it, he'll deal with it, it's over and done with," she testified.

Welch also detailed the road trip that ensued as the trio tried to outrun the law. They traveled north to Yellowstone National Park, where Province split off. From there, Welch said she and McCluskey traveled to Pennsylvania and back to Arizona, camping along the way.

Welch said McCluskey wanted to return to Arizona after learning his mother had been arrested for aiding the fugitives. She said she tried to convince him they needed to gather backpacking supplies and "disappear into the mountains."

On Aug. 19, 2010, a ranger stopped at their campsite in Apache County, Ariz., to make sure their campfire was out. Hours later, authorities descend upon the area, guns drawn.

Welch described it as a "very devastating day." She and McCluskey were tackled and handcuffed.

Prosecutors showed Welch a photograph of the inside of the tent at the campsite and asked about a .40-caliber handgun next to the blankets.

"That was the gun that was used to kill the Haases," she said.