It was daybreak on Tuesday when Putnam County Sheriff’s Deputy David Gunter eased his cruiser to a stop along an isolated stretch of Ga 16 east of Atlanta. A prison bus was idling along the side of the road and Gunter was the first to arrive.
A chilling scene greeted him: Two correctional officers were dead inside — one in the driver’s seat and the other next to him in the passenger’s seat.
Gunter tried to ask the remaining 31 prisoners on the bus, still restrained in waist chains and leg irons, what happened, but the sealed windows made it impossible to understand them. So he waited, with his rifle at the ready, until Sheriff Howard Sills arrived a few minutes later from his home just four miles away.
“Blood was running out of the bus onto the pavement,” Sills recalled.
So began one of the most intense manhunts in Georgia memory. It ended three days later when Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe were apprehended after a high-speed chase — bullets flying — in rural Tennessee that shut down an interstate. Dubose and Rowe would eventually surrender. They’ll be extradited back to Georgia where they could face capital charges.
How Dubose and Rowe breached the security gate at the front of the bus that separates the inmates from the prison guards has not been publicly disclosed. Nor has it been explained how they slipped loose from handcuffs or shackles.
A video exists of the incident, authorities said, and a state investigation is underway to determine what went wrong. Such prisoner transports are commonplace, occurring every Tuesday and Thursday as the state shuttles offenders from lockup to lockup.
The brutal slayings of Sgt. Christopher Monica, 42, and Sgt. Curtis Billue, 58, quickly spurred a nationwide search for the two escaped inmates described as “dangerous beyond description” with nothing to lose.
The manhunt for the two — cellmates at Baldwin State Prison — would rapidly grow to involve hundreds of GBI agents, Department of Corrections employees, state troopers, FBI agents, U.S Marshals, local deputies and game wardens. More than 500 leads were run down.
Here is how the search and capture unfolded.
When Sills, a veteran lawman with a larger-than-life reputation, arrived at the scene, he had firefighters pry open the folding door of the bus that had been transporting prisoners to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison outside of Jackson.
Dubose and Rowe had kicked open the glass on the bus door to escape. And the gate that is supposed to separate the inmates from the guards was ajar, officials said.
Things moved quickly in the minutes and hours that followed. There was no telling where Dubose and Rowe had fled. The chase was on.
Many of the 31 inmates who stayed on the bus knew little of the duo because they were coming from different prisons or different areas of Baldwin, Sills said.
But one inmate seated at the front of the bus was helpful, the sheriff said.
That inmate described the green Honda Civic that the two escapees allegedly carjacked and the direction in which they drove — toward Eatonton.
Georgia State Patrol Col. Mark McDonough said a ranger with the Department of Natural Resources, which shares the radio channel with Georgia State Patrol, also heard the transmissions about the shooting and the carjacking and tied the two together.
A trooper was dispatched and they were able to issue a description and a tag number within an hour.
The first indication that Rowe and Dubose were still in the area came later Tuesday morning when a woman who lived just two miles from the scene in nearby Morgan County arrived home around 10 a.m. to find her house had been burglarized. Inside, deputies found a wet pair of prison pants, the blue stripes ripped off, crumpled on a closet floor.
Tracking dogs and footprints led officers into the woods behind the house. Food, such as a package of bacon, had been discarded along the way.
But Dubose and Rowe were nowhere to be found.
Authorities broadcast pictures of the fugitives and information on the Honda far and wide pleading for help. The 24-year-old Dubose, in particular, stood out. A member of the violent Aryan prison gang known as the Ghostface Gangsters, his face and neck were etched with tattoos.
The following day came an important find: the green Honda abandoned and concealed in some woods behind a drug store near the home that had been burglarized.
Sills said it appeared the two fugitives had driven the car up a berm of dirt, then jumped out at the top and let the Honda careen down the other side and into a tree.
More footprints through the woods led searchers to a quarry nine miles away.
There, a video camera posted outside a business captured fuzzy images of two men, believed to be Rowe and Dubose, stealing a white 2008 Ford F-250 with Georgia license plate BCX 5372. A video recording showed them getting onto I-20 heading toward Atlanta.
The theft had occurred just before midnight Tuesday. But authorities didn’t see it until Wednesday morning when the business owners arrived for work and realized the truck was missing.
A description of the truck was quickly distributed. But the trail had gone cold.
“Where they have gone from there we don’t know,” Sills said.
While authorities implored the public to help, they again cautioned the men were dangerous.
Rowe, 43, was serving life without parole for a 2001 armed robbery in Bibb County. Dubose, convicted of armed robbery and aggravated assault, was sentenced to 20 years in Elbert County, and that sentence wasn’t set to expire until 2034.
While law enforcement had luck with cars on Wednesday there were no sightings of two men.
The wanted men would surface again, this time in Tennessee.
At around 2 p.m. Thursday, Dubose and Rowe burst into the home of Robert and Rebecca Hickerson with guns drawn. They may have been driven by desperation. Police said their latest getaway car had broken down nearby. The Ford truck they had stolen in Georgia had been ditched in Lynchburg, some 250 miles away.
They spent three hours inside the elderly couple’s tidy yellow house, which sits on a hill overlooking several acres near downtown Shelbyville some 60 miles southeast of Nashville. The Hickersons were tied up and held at gunpoint, according to Bedford County Sheriff Austin Swing.
Rowe and DuBose left around 5 p.m., driving away in the homeowners’ black Jeep Cherokee. Police said the couple were able to free themselves and notified Bedford County law enforcement, which began their pursuit of the Jeep on Interstate 24.
The chase took on a Hollywood-like quality. Speeds reached 100 mph and the suspects fired at and struck several Rutherford County police cruisers using the Glock pistols they stole from the prison guards they allegedly killed in Georgia, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Part of the highway was shut down and residents described a chaotic scene. Police checkpoints sprung up. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
Outside of Murfreesboro, the fugitives wrecked the SUV, fleeing into the nearby woods for what would be their last taste of freedom. They would emerge, shirtless and drained, in a nearby residential neighborhood.
They couldn’t have picked a worse place to hide. Large cell phone towers overlook the wide pastures that back up to the dense wood. Guns are everywhere.
“Husband and wife, ex-military. Husband. Ex-military. Husband, ex-military,” said Jeremy Littrell, pointing to his neighbors’ homes on Pruitt Road in rural Christiana. “I hunt. We have plenty of firearms. Everyone down this road is into hunting or ex-military … They just picked a bad road to come up on,.”
From his back deck, Littrell, 32, watched the escaped inmates jog in and out of the tree line, located less than a mile from the interstate. Littrell was protected by a 12 gauge shotgun and a couple of pistols. He had been warned by a sheriff’s deputy checking vehicles near his home to stay away.
While some early accounts of the capture involved Dubose and Rowe being held at bay by a civilian toting a semiautomatic weapon, the truth is a little less dramatic.
Next door to Littrell, Patrick Hale watched as Rowe and Dubose crawled through barbed-wire and into his yard. He grabbed his gun and young daughter and rushed out to the car. As he was about to pull away, he noticed the inmates edging closer, but they dropped to the ground. Hale believes they surrendered because his car resembles a police-type cruiser.
“I prayed like I had never prayed before,” said the 35-year-old father.
Hale said he never pulled his gun on the inmates, who at one point got up off the ground to get a drink of water from a hose but then lay back down.
Littrell said he approached his neighbor’s home, but said he was no hero.
“I never drew my gun on them,” he said.
Within minutes, at least 40 officers had surrounded the accused killers.
“There were helicopters circling overhead, police everywhere,” Littrell said. “They knew the gig was up.”
The morning after, Dubose and Rowe looked subdued as they appeared before a judge in Rutherford County and waived extradition back to Georgia.
The Hickersons — who endured three hours with the fugitives — were home but did not answer the door for reporters.
Neighbor Catherine West described them as “very sweet and cordial.”
“We come from Europe,” said West, originally from Sweden. Her husband is French. “Middle Tennessee is as safe as can be. But I guess this can happen anywhere in the world.”
As for the $130,000 reward that was offered for the arrest of the two, Sills and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the money would go to the Tennessee civilians.
“Information has revealed that the bravery of Tennessee civilians contributed to the apprehension of both inmates” the GBI said in a statement. “The reward will be dispersed at the appropriate time. As there were several aspects involved in their apprehension, law enforcement will continue to review them and determine how it will be dispersed.”
Stephen Bradley, the district attorney in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, said he would first seek indictments against the two before announcing how he will proceed with their prosecutions.
“This has been a very difficult, trying week for the people in our circuit. A lot of people have been nervous and on edge.”
“It’s been a horrifying law enforcement experience. We are beginning the process of putting together our file,” Bradley said Friday. He said he would also focus on “taking care of the families” of the slain officers.
“This is as big as cases get,” he said.