ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Frailty is starting to creep up on Vivian Haas, but her strong will has yet to fade. The 83-year-old woman is driven by a simple desire to see justice done for her son and daughter-in-law after a string of tragedies in the family.
Her son and his wife were killed and their bodies burned by carjacking fugitives in 2010 on the desolate wind-swept plains of New Mexico. The next year, a tornado flattened Haas’ neighborhood in Joplin, Mo. Earlier this year, her granddaughter was found shot to death in her home.
On Monday, the last of the three people charged with killing her son and daughter-in-law, Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla., goes to trial.
Haas will be there. She says wants him to be held accountable for forever changing her life and the lives of her family members. She wants the tragedies to end.
“We’re not quitters,” she said of her family’s pursuit of justice. “We’ve just got to do it. This has to be taken care of.”
The couple, 61-year-old high school sweethearts and recent retirees from General Motors, were headed to Colorado for an annual camping trip when they decided to take a break at a rest stop near the New Mexico-Texas border in August 2010. They had traveled the same route for the past 11 summers. This year, they were spotted by the fugitives, who prosecutors say were eyeing their truck and travel trailer.
At gunpoint, prosecutors say, the couple was forced to drive west along Interstate 40 before pulling off onto a lonely two-lane road. They were then ordered into their trailer, and gunshots rang out.
The Haases were dead, their bodies found later in the charred rubble of their trailer. Their truck, money and guns were gone, but two of their small dogs were found nearby, both sunburned and one with burns on her back and paws.
Their deaths sent the family into a tailspin. What followed has been a roller coaster of emotion — and more tragedy.
Vivian Haas’ neighborhood was among those in the path of the tornado that devastated much of Joplin in 2011. The old-growth trees in her yard and her vehicle were long gone after the storm, but she survived. She continues to believe it was for a reason — to see the case through.
Earlier this year, Gary and Linda Haas’ only daughter was found shot to death inside her home in Oklahoma. Her husband has been charged with murder. Now without parents or grandparents, their 2-year-old son is being raised by relatives.
Whether things would have turned out differently had Gary and Linda Haas been alive is almost too painful for the family to contemplate. The two were the family organizers, the glue that kept everyone together.
“Every absence is a hole,” said Linda Rook, Gary Haas’ younger sister. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of absences in the last few years that have been due to tragedy. It’s hard.”
“Just counting them up, that’s a big loss,” Vivian Haas said. “We’ve been through a lot.”
Haas and Rook have traveled thousands of miles over the last two years, braving blizzards and other inclement weather to attend numerous hearings and trials prompted by the escapes in Arizona and the killings in New Mexico.
And it could take several more months to conclude what they hope is the final chapter.
Attorneys in the case have warned the jury of nine women and three men that the trial could last four months. And if John McCluskey is convicted, they will then have to decide whether he should face life in prison or death.
McCluskey was one of three inmates who broke out of a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., with the help of Casslyn Welch, his cousin and fiancee.
Welch acknowledged throwing cutting tools onto the prison grounds. McCluskey, Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick used the tools to break through a perimeter fence and flee into the desert. Welch had also supplied the men with guns and money and Renwick with a get-away vehicle.
Renwick was captured a day later after a shootout in Colorado.
McCluskey, Province and Welch eventually found themselves in New Mexico. Prosecutors said that’s when the group decided to target the Haases for their truck and trailer.
Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year in connection with the slayings and face life sentences. They’re expected to testify in McCluskey’s trial.
McCluskey is facing 20 counts in connection with the slayings. According to the indictment, he told federal agents after his arrest that he shot Gary Haas once and Linda Haas three times.
But defense attorney Gary Mitchell told a panel of prospective jurors that his client did not kill the couple nor did he intend for them to be killed.
Vivian Haas doesn’t believe him.
“He cannot imagine the hurt he has brought on this family,” she said of McCluskey.
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