- Associated Press - Friday, August 20, 2010

PHOENIX (AP) — An unattended campfire and a suspicious forest ranger led to the arrest of two of the most wanted fugitives in the U.S., ending a three-week nationwide manhunt that drew hundreds of false sightings, authorities said.

John McCluskey fled July 30 with two other inmates from a private prison in northwest Arizona and evaded authorities in at least six states before being caught Thursday evening just 300 miles east of the prison.

Authorities arrested McCluskey, 45, and his purported accomplice, Casslyn Welch, 44, at a campsite in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona.

Miss Welch, who is McCluskey’s fiancee and cousin, reached for a weapon but dropped it when she realized she was outgunned by a swarming SWAT team, said David Gonzales, U.S. marshal for Arizona.

Officers apprehended McCluskey without incident after finding him lying in a sleeping bag outside a tent. He told authorities he had a gun in his tent and would have shot them if he had been able to reach for it.

It was a peaceful close to a manhunt that authorities had said was likely to end in a bloody shootout between officers and desperate outlaws who fancied themselves as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.

“The nightmare that began July 30 is finally over,” Mr. Gonzales said.

The fugitives’ ruse began to crumble about 4 p.m. Thursday when a U.S. Forest Service ranger investigated what appeared to be an unattended campfire, Mr. Gonzales said. He found a silver Nissan Sentra backed suspiciously into the trees as if someone were trying to hide it.

The ranger had a brief conversation with McCluskey, who appeared nervous and fidgety. A SWAT team and surveillance unit surrounded the campsite and swarmed on the fugitives, Mr. Gonzales said.

McCluskey told officers he wishes he would have shot the forest ranger when he had the opportunity, authorities said.

McCluskey and Miss Welch were being held in the Apache County Jail in St. Johns.

A photo released by authorities showed McCluskey wearing dirty blue jeans and no shirt with an “Arizona” tattoo across his chest.

“I hope the citizens of Arizona and the nation can rest easier this evening,” said state Corrections Department Director Charles Ryan.

Authorities will spend Friday combing the campsite looking for any evidence that could link the fugitives to other crimes during their time on the lam.

Mr. Gonzales said investigators looked into 700 tips from nearly every state in a manhunt that had officers swarming into small towns from Montana to Arkansas. Authorities said the trail had gone cold since McCluskey and Miss Welch were last seen Aug. 6 in Billings, Mont.

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