Paul Ruiz and Earl Van Denton (Crime Spree)

Paul Ruiz and Earl Van Denton escaped from an Oklahoma prison and embarked on a crime spree that took them across multiple states, including Arkansas. The men were convicted in Arkansas of killing town marshal Marvin Ritchie and park ranger Opal James in Logan County. They were executed along with a third man at the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction on January 8, 1997.

At the time of their escape, Ruiz was serving a life sentence for armed robbery, while Van Denton was serving a life sentence for murder. Working as part of a twenty-member crew tasked with tearing down a brick factory near the prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, the pair escaped on June 23, 1977. They had been placed in an empty building during a lunch break, but the door to the building was not guarded, allowing Ruiz, Van Denton, and Elmer Finin to escape. Two of the guards tasked with supervising the work crew were demoted and suspended after the incident.

The trio fled from the prison into the city of McAlester. The exact timeline for the events that followed is unclear, but it appears that Finin separated from Ruiz and Van Denton shortly after the escape. Finin was arrested in Hot Springs (Garland County) on October 31, 1977, at a service station where he was employed. Returned to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, he died at the prison on October 21, 1981.

The first possible murder associated with Ruiz and Van Denton’s crime spree occurred on June 27, 1977, when Gerald Tiffee disappeared in Boswell, Oklahoma. However, Ruiz and Denton were never charged in his disappearance.

Moving southeast into Louisiana, Ruiz and Denton murdered Jimmy Cockrill near Colfax. Cockrill’s body was found on June 28. It is suspected that on that same day, Ray Jones and Alton Wilson were killed near Franklinton, Louisiana. The bodies were found in Tiffee’s pickup truck, which had been submerged in a flooded gravel pit.

Moving north, the pair entered Arkansas. Driving a stolen car, Ruiz and Van Denton got a flat tire near Magazine (Logan County). Removing the tire from the car, the pair began rolling it to town to have it repaired. Marvin Ritchie, the town marshal of Magazine, was informed by local citizens of the men’s actions, and he drove out of town to offer assistance. Seizing the opportunity to take the marshal’s car, the pair kidnapped Ritchie. Ruiz and Van Denton drove through Magazine and Blue Mountain (Logan County), where they were spotted in the patrol car with Ritchie handcuffed in the rear seat. Driving to Ashley Recreation Area on the shore of Blue Mountain Lake, the pair stopped a truck driven by two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rangers. Rangers David Small and Opal James were ordered into the patrol car, and Ruiz and Van Denton drove into a thickly wooded area. Handcuffing Small and Ritchie together, Ruiz and Van Denton forced them into the trunk of the patrol car while making James lie on the ground behind the car. Ruiz took Small’s watch, and one of the convicts took Ritchie’s shirt. Before closing the trunk, they shot both Small and Ritchie. Ritchie was struck in the head or neck and killed. Small was hit in the chest and blacked out for a period but regained consciousness. Searchers found the car about five hours later and rescued Small.

Ruiz and Van Denton took the Corps of Engineers truck and drove south, with James captive to use as a guide due to his knowledge of the isolated roads in the area. Ruiz and Van Denton abandoned the truck about forty miles from Magazine. They killed James there and hiked to Oden (Montgomery County), where they stole another truck.

Using this vehicle, they drove back into Oklahoma and stole a taxi cab in Purcell on July 1. They killed the driver of the cab, Melvin Short; his body was found in Grady County, Oklahoma. Using Short’s car, the duo drove to Portland, Oregon. They were captured there on July 8. They had contacted a family member in Oklahoma for financial assistance, but the family member instead contacted the authorities, and the men were waiting on a money transfer when captured. At the time of their arrest, Van Denton and Ruiz were with a third man, David Christofferson, whom the pair picked up hitchhiking in eastern Oregon. Christofferson was questioned and released.

After weeks of legal maneuvering, the pair were extradited to Arkansas, tried in Booneville (Logan County) on capital murder charges, and convicted on April 27, 1978. During the trial, Small identified the two escapees as the men who had kidnapped and shot him along with Ritchie and James. The jury deliberated for forty minutes before returning the verdict and deliberated for another hour before recommending the death penalty.

The convictions for both men were overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court, and they were retried in 1983 in Morrilton (Conway County). This occurred due to the pretrial publicity in Logan County, which was deemed to be prejudicial to their case. Once again, the men were convicted and sentenced to death. The death sentences were overturned by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987, and that phase of the trial was held again. Once again, both men were sentenced to death. Another appeal filed in 1989 to the Eighth Circuit was denied, followed by a final appeal that was denied on January 3, 1997.

Ruiz and Van Denton were executed at the Cummins Unit on January 8, 1997, along with Kirt Wainwright, who was convicted of murder and robbery in Nevada County in 1988. Both Ruiz and Van Denton declined to give final statements. Small was present for the executions but was not allowed to view the proceedings. Van Denton was executed first and was declared dead at 7:09 p.m. Ruiz was executed next and declared dead at 8:00 p.m.

For additional information:
Bragg, Rick. “An Evening of Death: Three Murderers Are Executed.” New York Times, January 10, 1997, p. A1.

Parrish, Glenn. “Murders Still Fresh, Four Decades Later.” Booneville Democrat, July 3, 2017, pp. 1A, 2A.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 05/09/2019

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