Editors Note: Sometimes we come across a historic photograph with no background information. By all appearances of the snapshot in time, the event was quite remarkable yet lost in time. The following is one such story. It is a story of one convict, Phoenix Police and one of the largest manhunts in the State of Arizona.
John Dewayne Burrell, or Johnny to his criminal acquaintances, began his criminal career at the young age of 12 as a burglar. Within five years, this troubled teen managed to rack up arrests for burglary and the Federal Dwyer Act (stolen vehicles taken across state lines) in Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Washington and was spending time in the state reformatory. Once released, it was only a matter of time before he continued his crime spree. He was caught and convicted on three charges of burglary in Kansas in 1958. He was sent to prison for 5-10 years on burglary but did not stay long. On the night of October 9, 1959, he pried open the bars in the gymnasium and escaped from the reformatory with another inmate, Larry Dean Spoon. This would be Johnny’s first, but not last, successful escape. After making their escape, the two stole a pick-up and headed west, through New Mexico and into Arizona.
They stole another car after arriving in Apache County two days later. They were stopped by a state Highway Patrolman on Highway 66 and questioned about the ownership of the stolen car; however, for unknown reasons, they convinced the patrolman to release them. Driving on U.S. highway 666 to St. Johns, they stole another car after running out of gas. Shortly after this, they temporary spilt up, when Burrell ran into a Deputy Sheriff and a Game and Fish officer in the Springerville area. The officers were riding together when they spotted Burrell. Suspecting his outlaw status, the deputy sheriff pulled out his weapon, ordered the Burrell to raise his hands, and proceeded to handcuff him. The suspect began to comply but then punched the deputy on the chin causing the gun to go off, striking the deputy in the left leg. The deputy regained his aim with his weapon and fired at Burrell but missed. A later court report stated, “that he’d rather be killed by a peace officer while making an escape ….and that there was not much point in continuing to live.” This would be an echoing theme in his short life.
One of the largest manhunts began to assemble in northern Arizona. It would be the first of many more to come. Well after midnight near Show Low, Arizona, another Highway Patrolman attempted to stop Spoon and Burrell. The Patrolman flashed his red lights on their vehicle and the two escapes stopped and quickly escaped into the darkness on foot towards the mountains. Spoon was captured later that day, but Johnny Burrell was able to elude officers for over 48 hours by traveling a rough country road leading to Globe. On Early on October 13, 1959, two tribal police officers found him while he was asleep on the ground. Burrell tried to escape and was shot in his left leg. This did not slow him down. as one of the officers noted in his report, “He did not appear to suffer severely from the effects of the gunshot wound.” Escapee Burrell walked a distance of 50 miles before tribal police near the Salt River Canyon in Gila County eventually captured him that afternoon. A deputy related on the arrest, “He was still going strong when we finally caught him, he was a tough character!” Johnny Dewayne Burrell was sent back to the Arizona State Prison working in the hobby shop as well as other miscellaneous jobs.
Burrell’s next escape occurred on March 17, 1960. He escaped from Florence Prison by stepping out of a shower lineup, slipping into the industrial yard and creeping over an unmanned position of the wall under the cover of darkness. He made his way to the Valley on March 22, 1960 and held a Peoria couple hostage in their home for several hours. The unsuspecting couple had returned to the house and were unpleasantly surprised to find a stranger sitting in their home with a rifle across his knees. Burrell forced one victim to drive him to Phoenix where he got out of the vehicle. At 2nd Avenue and Washington in downtown Phoenix, Gazette reporter Thurman “Johnny” Johns recognized him as a fugitive. The reporter hailed down motorcycle patrolman Billy Connelly who was writing an overtime parking ticket. Patrol Officer Connelly drove his motorcycle ahead and stopped to block Burrell’s escape route. He was radioing police headquarters for a picture of Burrell when the fugitive ran south. Reporter Johns, a proud veteran of World War II and Korea, ran in pursuit with the Officer down the center of 2nd Avenue, just north of Washington. A dozen bystanders joined the chase when they saw Burrell outdistancing his pursuers. An ex-deputy sheriff, Jim Eden, joined in the chase and slowed Burrell by trying to tackle him. Another citizen, court clerk Harry Scott, stuck out his foot and tripped the fleeing man. By that time, Officer Connelly and reporter Johns caught up with Burrell. According to the later newspaper article the “husky patrolman bulldogged him, while Constable Spain and several police officers from the police station across the street held Burrell on the ground and was handcuffed”. A marine-type commando knife, stolen from the house of the Peoria couple, dropped from the desperado’s waistband. While the officers wrestled with Burrell, Mr. Johns, the ever-vigilant reporter, ran to Police Headquarters to get his camera and returned to get several pictures of the action. When Johns finally got his breath, he explained he recognized Burrell from police photographs he had seen at headquarters. During Burrell’s subsequent interviews, he admitted to burglarizing several houses to get cash for a bus ticket to get out of Phoenix but spent the money on food and liquor. Detectives were able to determine his involvement in six burglaries during the previous two days. He had been staying in the stockyards area since Saturday night.
Within two years he would attempt, but fail, to escape from prison. However, on June 11, 1963, Johnny Burrell and six other inmates were successful in their attempt to escape. The inmates, in addition to Burrell, were Robert Kaiser, sentenced for attempted murder; Jarrell Collins, sentenced for armed robbery; Aurelio Navarro, sentenced for murder; Jesus Pina, sentenced for murder; Frank Calderon, sentenced for robbery; and Bobby Favors, sentenced for burglary.
The escapees were tracked all day by well over 200 posse men, prison guards and highway patrolman tracked the escapees all day. Soon after abandoning a prison truck and fleeing into an area east and north of the prison between Florence and Superior, Favors and Burrell separated from Kaiser, Collins and Navarro. Favors and Burrell double-backed to Florence, stole a car and later traveled to the Phoenix area. Meanwhile Jesus Pina and Frank Calderon left in a second commandeered prison truck as they fled the prison’s hog farm. They had been left behind by the other five fugitives shortly after the breakout when their prison truck blew a tire and they were forced to stop. Pina and Calderon were tracked down in a cotton field west of the state prison 12 hours after escaping. They gave up without a fight after deputies with dogs and others on horseback tracked them in circles thought Queen Creek and Florence areas.
The five remaining convicts slipped through a ring of posse men who had them surrounded in the Picket Post area about five miles southwest of Superior. Navarro and his group made it to Ray, Arizona, once a large copper mine, but now a ghost town in Pinal County. There they broke in one home, robbed a family of three at gun point and emptied the refrigerator of food. They tried to break into a second home but fled when they were welcomed with a hail of gun fire from the home owner. Later that same day, 47 hours after the prison break, a Pinal County Deputy momentarily came face to face with the trio riding in a stolen car on a back-road northeast of Superior, Arizona. The posse pursued them down a dusty and neglected mining road that came to a dead end. The escapees were forced to abandon their stolen car and took to the brush and desert in a last-ditch attempt to escape. Prison trackers took up the chase at this point. Veteran trackers “Injun Joe” Arjel and George Meyers trapped the three prison escapees in a small cave about 6 1/2 miles from Superior. The trackers spotted the trio cornered in a small cave hiding behind brush they had dug up to hide the cave’s entrance. (Photo of trackers) They ordered the dangerous fugitives to come out with their hands ups but they failed to comply. Prison tracker George Meyers said, “When they failed to come out, we started shooting…”. He fired 6 shots from a 30-30 rifle and “Injun Joe” fired six times with a pistol. The echo of gunfire could be heard throughout the canyon. Once it stopped a faint cry could be heard, “The other two are dead. I’m coming out”. It was Aurelio Navarro finally surrendering. Robert Kaiser and Jarrell Collins were now dead. Navarro was dehydrated and could hardly talk above a whisper. The guard said the action came so fast that “the dangerous outlaws did not have a chance to fire a shot.” Just as in the days of the Wild West, the dead outlaws were laid across the saddles of horses to return the wanted men’s bodies. (include photo of dead prisoners on horse)
The last two escapees were yet to be found. Jimmy Burrell and Bobby Favors were thought to be trapped in the canyon but when they left the others on Wednesday, the escapees climbed more than 1000 feet to the top of Picket Post Mountain, watched the search during the day and slipped out that night. They then doubled-back 30 miles to Florence believing the prison area would be the last place officers would be looking for them. They most certainly heard the distant explosion of gunfire and knew the demise of their fellow prisoner’s last stand.
Early that morning, Burrell and Favors stole a car and looted a home of $120 and drove around Phoenix and then towards Wickenburg. They did not want to stick around and suffer a similar to Kaiser and Collins. Deputy Ken Jacobi spotted the escapees in a newly reported stolen 1961 Pontiac heading west on Grand Avenue at 9:00 a.m. and began the chase, radioing other officers for assistance. He reached speeds of 110-120 mph but could not overtake the fugitive’s car. At one point, the deputy had to give up the chase when the tires of his patrol car began to “throw rubber”. Burrell was in the back seat of the stolen car firing at the pursuing officers. Southwest of Surprise, Arizona, the two turned and double-backed eluding officers. A roadblock was set up one mile from Surprise. In a hail of gunfire, the speeding car slipped through on the highway shoulder and sped on towards Phoenix. Glendale police hastily set up another roadblock at the railroad underpass on Grand Avenue. Police cars were pulled completely across the highway but the fugitive’s car veered, increased speed as it approached the roadblock and slammed into the police cars ripping off a fender and continued towards Phoenix. Officers fired upon the vehicle and Burrell took a 12-gauge shot blast in the back.
In total, they crashed through seven roadblocks on U.S. 60 despite the diligent efforts by the heavily armed highway patrolmen, deputies and policemen from Phoenix, Glendale, and Peoria. Favors eventually ran a red light at Glendale doing 95 mph and turned south on 55th drive. Moments later Favors failed to make a turn and crashed into the chain-link fence of the Isaac Imes Elementary School, 6625 N. 56 Avenue. Dozens of officers and police vehicles were involved for over an hour in the 80-mile chase. The blood-spattered and bullet-riddled car was finally stopped and on fire. Deputy Bill Tressler, C.C. Persel Jr. and Lt. Bob Dorn roared up to the scene with their shot-up police cars as Favors and Burrell fled across the school parking lot. Burrell took the time to fire a shot at Deputy Tressler but narrowly missed. The deputies returned fire as Favors dodged and weaved as he ran. Two Phoenix patrol officers, Jim Larson and Robert Scott, arrived next on the scene and gave chase on foot. Favors and Burrell, bleeding profusely, traversed the grounds and scrambled over a fence. Favors was captured before he could scale another six-foot fence while Burrell collapsed to the ground.
(include photo of Burrell on ground bleeding)
There the officers caught up with them and ordered them to raise their hands and lay on the ground. The pair obeyed and were handcuffed by Scott and Larson, 40 feet from a dozen children playing in the area. John Burrell had been shot in the head and neck. A priest arrived on the scene to administer last rites to Burrell as he lay writhing in pain in the schoolyard. Burrell, however, would cheat death and survive. He received three 25 to life sentences, to be served concurrently, for intent to commit murder.
In 1972 Jimmy Burrell’s mother wrote to then Governor Jack Williams that “he (Burrell) has tried to be good….he would never break out or mess up again”.
Governor Jack Williams was not as understanding nor in agreement and wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles that “because of the gravity and circumstances of the offense involved in this case….I feel that the need for further demonstration of rehabilitation is imperative. The present allocations for commutation of sentence are denied.”
Johnny undoubtedly was planning his next escape after learning of this. In fact, guards found $1,527 in cash hidden under a rug in Burrell’s work area, the hobby shop area in the main yard located in the basement of the recreation building. (Scott to crop photo of just the gov) The money was secured in the prison safe while an investigation began.
It was only a matter of time for the inevitable. On November 4, 1972, Johnny Burrell was gone vanishing in thin air. He was last seen by prison staff at 1951 hours. Besides Johnny, prisoners, Billy Joe Wade and Jerry Hillyer were missing and had escaped.
It wasn’t for two days until anything was heard of Johnny Burrell. The prison received its first lead when Johnny called his mother and told her he “needed $300 right away and to Western Union it to Phoenix under the name of Jimmy Lance.” Instead, she called the prison’s Assistant Warden Dale Brandfast. She did so because she was upset since Johnny had been given a break in the prison as an outside trustee and had a chance for parole. She did not hear from her son again and did not send the money. However, money is what the three desperate escapees needed the most. On November 17, 1972, they bound and gagged a south Tucson man and woman robbing them of $10,000 from their nursery business. It was learned later that two men and a woman helped harbor the three inmates as they spent three weeks in the Tucson area hiding them out in three or four homes. “We believe the men were staying in Tucson before, during and after that robbery”, said Sgt. Larry Bunting, head of the homicide detail. Hillyer surrendered to police in central Arizona that December in 1972. Wade, who had been serving a 20-year term for robbery and murder, was recaptured in New Mexico on Jan 13, 1973 after a gunfight with police.
Johnny Burrell was not found and his exact whereabouts still remains a mystery. Tips to police in Arkansas and Oklahoma led Tucson police to believe Burrell may have been shot and killed by Wade and Hillyer as the trio passed through tiny Idabell, Oklahoma, several weeks after their escape. Tucson police Investigators say Burrell’s body may have been dumped in a river in the Arkansas town, but police there found nothing after dragging the river for his body. Sgt. Bunting of the Tucson Police stated, “the only thing we don’t have is his body. For all we know, the currents could have taken his body on down the river.” Police did not say why they suspect Burrell’s body might be in the Arkansas community, but he remains missing and is believed dead. Maybe in death he finally learned the hard way that crime never pays. Editor’s note: If alive today, Johnny would be seventy years old. He still has an active warrant for his arrest.