On July 9, 1986, mass murderer and rapist Jerry Walter McFadden escaped from the Upshur County Jail, which was then on the fifth floor of the courthouse, engendering a 3-day manhunt.
He had overpowered a jailer that Wednesday night and took a dispatcher, Rosalie Williams, now Turner,hostage.
The manhunt which resulted in his capture centered on Big Sandy, and was to be the largest in Texas history. An estimated 1,200 officers from many jurisdictions, even some from other states, rushed to the southwest Upshur County town to back up then-Police Chief Richard Lingle and the town’s small police department, after Rosalie escaped.
In early May, 1986, McFadden had kidnapped three young Hawkins residents—Brian Boone, Gena Turner and Suzanne Harrison—from Lake Hawkins in Wood County.
He murdered all of them in Upshur County. Suzanne’s body was found by a maintenance crew on Barnwell Mountain, about eight miles northeast of Gilmer. The bodies of the other two were found during a massive search a few days later near Ore City, where McFadden was living at the time.
Since the murders occurred in Upshur County, he was jailed in Gilmer.
Rosalie had escaped from McFadden, who was holding her in a box car parked on the railroad tracks at Big Sandy, and she went to the home a few blocks away of Mancho Martinez, who took her in and sent his son to the Sandy Center Market to call police, because he didn’t have a phone.
The police station was a block away, and Lingle and his officers had just completed a meeting in which he discussed with them what they would do if McFadden turned up in the town.
They sped to Martinez’s house, a block away from the police station, and Lingle confirmed that Rosie was there. When he went in, he asked Martinez “where is she?” Rosie yelled “Richard” and jumped from behind a door and hugged him. He called the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office, and said “I have Rosie. Request backup.”
And backup came pouring in, with officers from all over coming to Big Sandy.
Lingle said that after McFadden’s escape, no order had been given by the Sheriff’s Office to set up road blocks.
That was one of the first things they did when it was learned McFadden was in Big Sandy.
Rosie said that McFadden, who took her hostage in her own car, had driven all over the county on many back and main roads, ended up on FM 2911, near an old cemetery about four miles west of town, when the car overheated.
“They walked through the woods in the dark,” Lingle said, ending up in Big Sandy.
There was a few incidents which caused suspicion among officers before Rosie escaped.
In one case, the wife of one of Lingle’s officers called police and said that she thought McFadden was trying to break into her apartment at Family World Lake, on the south side of U.S. 80 in Big Sandy.
She fired a gunshot through the wall and he fled with his hostage.
The owner of a transmission shop on north Wildcat Drive called police and said someone was trying to get to the cars there.
McFadden, who had once lived in Big Sandy, wandered around the town in the dark, ending up at the railroad tracks near downtown. He intended to jump a train (trains went slowly through Big Sandy).
When Rosie escaped on the night of July 10, he had headed south from the boxcar, while she headed north.
Fortuitously, the Chamber of Commerce had just had new city maps printed. Those, ironically, had been designed by Lingle and his brother Rusty. They were just back from Stewart Printing in Big Sandy.
“Those were the maps we handed out to the officers who came to help,” he said.
He praised then-Sheriff Dale Jewkes.
“I couldn’t have wished for a better sheriff to work with,” Lingle said. “I asked him ‘what do you want to do?’ He said “it’s your town. It’s your call.”
Lingle and Jewkes shared a cooperative command during the search.
The search initially centered on the area south of the tracks.
When that proved fruitless, it shifted to the north part of town. When that failed to turn up anything, they contemplated a strategy of “pulling back,” making it look like the search parties had pulled out. DPS helicopters used in the search would go to the Ambassador College airstrip.
Lingle suggested to Jewkes that they try one other thing before that. He said to have officers search vacant houses and buildings.
On Friday night, a SWAT team from Collin County did just that, going back down Wildcat Drive (which runs past the school) which they had covered earlier.
They kicked the door open on a vacant house at the corner of College St. and Wildcat Drive, and found McFadden inside. He surrendered without incident. He had gotten water from an outside faucet at the house across the street, and was trying to shave his bushy, unkempt beard to change his appearance.
The SWAT team transferred McFadden to an Upshur County Sheriff’s car, and he was taken to the courthouse.
Security was high.
“They took him in the north door of the courthouse, rather than the south, as would have been usual,” he said.
Crowds had gathered on the courthouse lawn. The Collin County SWAT team raised their arms in triumph as they went in.
Lingle praised the cooperation of all the officers and agencies involved, and celebrated with a commemorative posture listing the agencies and many of the men involved.
Gilmer celebrated with a parade a few days later.
The biggest manhunt in Texas history was over.
McFadden would be found guilty of capital murder by a jury in Bell County, where the trial was moved on a change of venue.
Following numerous appeals, he was executed by lethal injection at Huntsville on Oct. 14, 1999. (See The Gilmer Mirror, Oct. 16, 1999.)
His life of terror was over. He had raped many women before this incident, but was always released early under laws then in place.
His luck had run out.