The seven travelers who took up residence at the Coachlight Motel and RV Park in Woodland Park called themselves men of God.
One of them, who said his name was Brother Jim, attended daily Bible-study meetings with the park’s born-again proprietor, Wade Holder, and once broke down in sobs during a prayer for forgiveness.
Brother Jim — in reality serial rapist Larry Harper — never shared details about his sins.
For three weeks in January 2001, the now-shuttered roadside campground in Woodland Park served as a hideout for the notorious Texas Seven, a crew of killers, robbers and rapists who murdered a Texas police officer 11 days after staging the biggest prison break in Texas history.
The Coachlight was also where the group’s flight from justice — and its unlikely cover story about being Christians on a mission trip to California — began to unravel.
Ten years ago today, acting on a tip from Holder, federal authorities converged on the scenic mountain town and arrested four of the fugitives — three at a gas station in Woodland Park and one at the Coachlight.
As authorities encircled the group’s camper, Harper shot himself in the only instance of bloodshed during the men’s capture.
The two remaining fugitives fled in a van and were arrested two days later after a standoff at a Holiday Inn in Colorado Springs.
Woodland Park, long a refuge from city life in Colorado, was suddenly vaulted onto a national stage. Journalists swamped the town in pursuit of an alphabet soup of federal law enforcement agencies that included the FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s Office and El Paso County SWAT teams.
Some locals were stunned to learn about the sordid pasts of men they had befriended.While Harper tended to stick to friends in Holder’s campground prayer group, others in the crew lived like tourists, frequenting taverns downtown and arranging pizza deliveries to their camper.
“They seemed like normal guys — no different than the locals, really,” said Bruce Sauer, a patron at Buck’s who said he had drinks with some members of the group at Tres Hombres Tex-Mex Cantina.
The bar on Woodland Park’s downtown strip folded several years ago and was replaced as Buck’s Tavern and Grill, although the same regulars belly up to the bar. A recent visit to Buck’s turned up a half dozen patrons who hung out with Texas Seven fugitives.
Chuck Metrolis talked about shooting the pool with the men on nights filled with music and dancing.
Nothing about them stood out, which he called a shame: “I wish I would have recognized them and got that half a million dollar reward.”
“You and everybody else,” said retired mechanic Pat “L.B.” Hill.
The men that Sauer met freely admitted they were from Texas, and if they were concerned about being found out, he said, you wouldn’t know it.
In a weird way, their carefree demeanor kept suspicions at bay.
“There’s always people coming to Woodland Park,” Hill said. “We don’t know if they’re just passing through or if they just robbed a place up the hill. You just don’t know.”
Holder, the former owner of the Coachlight, knew the men perhaps better than anyone in Woodland Park — particularly Brother Jim.
“We studied the Word together three hours a day,” Holder said. “I was a new Christian, and he had a tremendous amount of knowledge.”
A friend from the Bible study group — who insists on anonymity to this day — was the first to develop suspicions about the group, Holder said.
After attending a church with Brother Jim in Colorado Springs, the two stopped at the Coachlight on their way to lunch.
It was during that stop, Holder said, that the woman briefly met Texas Seven ringleader George Rivas, and recognized him from an airing of America’s Most Wanted or similar television program.
The telltale sign was a twitch in the man’s left eye, Holder said.
After continuing on to lunch with Brother Jim — she was “scared to death,” Holder said — she returned to the Coachlight office building and told Holder of her suspicions.
Together, they called up the website for America’s Most Wanted.
“I thought, Oh man: They’re all there,” Holder recalled.
After reporting the group to the Teller County Sheriff’s Office in Divide, Holder was involved in an all-night session in which local and federal authorities devised a plan to arrest the men without provoking a shootout with the well-armed group.
The first three arrests went off without a hitch, when the men were pulled from a car at the Western Gas & Convenience Store just east of Woodland Park on U.S. Highway 24. But when authorities surrounded the group’s camper at the Coachlight, only one of the two men inside gave up.
Brother Jim refused to come out.
Holder was close enough to hear the gunshot.
“I was heartbroken,” he said.
To this day, Holder said he believes Harper was a man of faith who sincerely sought forgiveness for his crimes.
“I don’t know where he’s at — that’s God’s decision,” he said.
The final act of the Texas Seven drama unfolded at Holiday Inn on Garden of the Gods Road, where Colorado Springs police detective Matt Harrell negotiated the surrender of Donald Newberry and Patrick Murphy.
The men wanted a chance to tell the public about prison conditions in Texas and police agreed to give them one — by enlisting help from then-KKTV anchorman Eric Singer.
Under terms of the deal, each man was given 5 minutes on the phone with Singer, now of KRDO, for interviews that were broadcast live.
Police closely scripted Singer’s questions, so as not to upset the pair, and Harrell sat by the reporter’s side in case the talks took a bad turn.
In the end, the fugitives played by the rules.
“Their five minutes were up, and they did as they said. They came out,” said Harrell, now a sergeant in the Police Department.
George Rivas was sentenced to death after being extradited to Texas. The other five members of the Texas Seven also were placed on Death Row. One, Michael Rodriquez, gave up his right to appeal. He was executed Aug. 14, 2008, at age 45.
—Call the writer at 636-0366.
Texas Seven TimelineDec. 13, 2000 — Texas Seven overpower prison guards in a maximum-security facility in Kenedy, Tex., and escape in a stolen pickup loaded with 16 guns.Dec. 24, 2000 — Ringleader George Rivas fatally shoots rookie police Officer Aubrey Hawkins in Irving, Tex., after a robbery at a sporting goods store. The heist nets $70,000 in cash and checks and numerous weapons.Dec. 29, 2000 — Rivas buys a Pace Arrow motor home from a couple in Colorado Springs. He pays $13,000 cash, saying the money was collected as part of the group’s traveling Christian ministry.Jan. 1, 2001 — Five of the seven arrive at the Coachlight Motel and RV Park in Woodland Park, telling the proprietor they are on a mission trip from Texas to California. Two others show up within a day or two.Jan. 21, 2001 — A friend of Coachlight owner Wade Holder meets Rivas and recognizes him from television coverage. Holder reports her suspicions to the Teller County Sheriff’s Office in Divide.Jan. 22, 2001 — Authorities converge on Woodland Park and arrest four of the fugitives. One — known to locals as Brother Jim — commits suicide during a standoff. Two others flee in a van.Jan. 23, 2001 — Police in Colorado Springs narrow their search to a Holiday Inn on Garden of the Gods Road after the van was found in the motel’s parking lot.Jan. 24, 2001 — Two remaining inmates, Patrick Murphy and Donald Newbury, surrender peacefully after Colorado Springs police arrange for live interviews with then-KKTV anchorman Eric Singer.