According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials, Juan Salaz had been on the run for almost 16 years, hiding out most of the time in Mexico.
William T. “Bill” Lazenby said Thursday that Salaz was taken into custody in Monterrey, Mexico, where he has family, on Jan. 29 and immediately transferred to Mexico City, where he is currently being held.
Lazenby has good reason to be glad Salaz was recaptured. He was the major in charge of the TDCJ’s Internal Affairs investigators for Region IV at the time. The Salaz escape was the second one to take place on his watch and the only escape where the fugitive was still at large.
TDCJ representatives are working this week on the necessary paperwork to have the fugitive extradited back to Texas, where he will face a new offense, felony escape.
That offense is a third degree felony, and if he is convicted on that charge, Salaz could have a 10-year sentence and a $10,000 fine tacked onto the three, 35-year sentences he was serving, concurrently, at the time of his escape.
“He wasn’t at the Garza East Unit too long when this happened,” Lazenby said of the March 22, 1997 escape.
Salaz had initially been arrested by Houston police after an April 2, 1995 shoot out with officers trying to arrest him in connection to a kidnapping investigation.
According to an article written several years ago about the fugitive, Salaz was 20 years old when he and an accomplice, Geronimo Alvaredo, kidnapped a bartender from a Houston nightclub called Fantasia. The two men demanded that the club’s owner pay a $5,000 ransom.
The owner contacted Houston police, and 15 armed officers were waiting in the club’s parking lot when Salaz drove up in a 1965 Mustang. In the back seat, Alvaredo had a handgun pointed at the victim’s head.
The kidnappers released their hostage and drove up to take the money when the police started shooting. Salaz raced out of the parking lot, and both kidnappers opened fire on the officers.
As Salaz stepped on the gas pedal, one Houston detective fired every round from a pump shotgun, blasting out the driver’s window and wounding Salaz 17 times with shotgun pellets.
But Salaz did not stop. Instead, when the detective fell from a stray round fired by a fellow officer, Salaz fired at him four times, missing each shot.
That was why, when Salaz made it out of the Garza East Unit, police urged caution in trying to apprehend him.
“I’m glad he’s back,” Lazenby said this week. “Number one, he shot at police officers. He’d shoot anybody.”
“It’s just his boldness,” Lazenby said of Salaz. “He’s very dangerous. We need to bring him back.”
Salaz displayed that same boldness when he escaped from the Garza East Unit. When he realized a recreation yard door was unlocked on the night of his escape, he slipped through the door, out into the yard, scaled a tall fence on the extreme eastern side of the prison unit and then bolted for the double, chain-link fence surrounding the unit.
As two female correctional officers watched from the Garza East watch towers, Salaz scaled one fence, went over the razor wire, dropped into what Lazenby called “no man’s land” and then scaled another razor wire-topped fence.
The correctional officers in the towers were armed with AR-15 rifles and shotguns, but neither of them fired a shot at the fleeing inmate. They later lost their jobs after an investigation.
The next error came when a “rover,” a correctional officer circling the unit, heard of the escape, drove out the main gate to the prison and headed east on State Highway 202 toward Refugio.
The officer noticed a van backing out of a narrow, dirt driveway in the wooded area where officers suspected Salaz had gone.
Lazenby said a low fog had settled upon the area around the Garza Unit and Salaz disappeared into the mist before he reached the property fence near the driveway where the van was spotted.
When the officer stopped the van he spoke briefly to a female driver and had her stop at the gate to the prison unit.
He checked the vehicle and allowed the driver to leave.
Lazenby said it was not until the rover was hypnotized by a Texas Ranger that he was able to recall that another woman, a man and a child had been in the back seat when he checked the vehicle.
But the rover did write down the license number of the van. Later, U.S. Customs officers confirmed that a van bearing the license number had entered Mexico at Reynosa and had returned to the U.S. the same day.
Salaz, a native of Harlingen, had family in Monterrey and Houston, and he had lived in Monterrey, where he had a Mexican wife and some children.
Lazenby said the entire area around the Garza East Unit was searched the next morning by teams on horseback using dogs. But by then, Salaz was safe in Mexico.
One of the women, a Sinton resident, was later tracked down, investigated and arrested. The other woman in the van also was arrested, Lazenby recalled. But both cases were later dropped by investigators.
During the ensuing years, the authorities believed Salaz was crossing the border at times. But he was protected by family members.
For a while, Mexican authorities helped in the search for the fugitive. But none of their leads led them to Salaz.
“We had another lead at one time from an oil field worker who had crossed the border at Reynosa,” Lazenby said. “He was pretty much sure he’d seen Salaz working in Boys Town there.”
But at that time, Texas had just executed a Mexican national, and the authorities there would not cooperate with the investigation.
Lazenby said he volunteered to make a trip down to the Boys Town to see if he could find Salaz but his superiors would not allow him to make the trip.
Now retired from his TDCJ job and working as the head District Court bailiff and security officer at the Bee County Courthouse, Lazenby said he and the wardens who were working at the Garza Units at the time, finally will be able to close the books on an important escape investigation.
And a José Salaz who lives in Dallas and shares a birthday with the fugitive will be happy as well. Lazenby said he had been arrested twice by officers who thought he was the escapee.
“You have to instill in the system the feeling that you’re never going to give up searching,” Lazenby said of the TDCJ’s position. If one offender escapes and gets away with the crime, it just encourages others to try it.
Lazenby said Salaz must have been planning his escape almost from the time he arrived at Garza. Inmates were not supposed to have more than two sets of clothing at any one time. But Salaz had been preparing. He had several layers of clothing on him the night he escaped, and he would shed a layer when he got caught in the razor wire.
Still, Salaz was cut up during his escape. Searchers found blood in the brush from the point where he jumped the last fence to the driveway where the two women were waiting for him in the van.
Lazenby said there were about seven escapes in Region IV while he was in charge of what is now called the Office of the Inspector General.
All but Salaz and the infamous “Texas Seven” who escaped from the John B. Connally Unit in Kenedy, were caught in the area near the units from which they escaped.
Salaz already has been indicted for the 1997 escape. The Bee County Grand Jury returned an indictment against him on a charge of felony escape on June 13, 1997.
His bond was set at $250,000 and his indictment had his name listed as José L. Salaz. Lazenby said he believes the first name the fugitive is using now, Juan, is an alias.
The indictment pointed out that Salaz escaped while serving a 35-year sentence after being convicted on two counts of aggravated assault and one count of kidnapping in the 338th District Court of Harris County.
Salaz also had a conviction out of Bexar County on a change of aggravated assault on Jan. 22, 1996.
“He’ll be tried here in Bee County,” Lazenby said. This is the venue where the escape happened.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.