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Tony Shane Francis had his share of breaks.
He pulled off bank robberies in Oregon and Idaho, escaped from jail in Arizona, made the scene on America's Most Wanted and the FBI's list of top fugitives, and dodged the wrath of the Aryan Brotherhood and black gangs in one of the nation's toughest penitentiaries. He even beat an attempted escape rap by exposing, in a Denver courtroom, the federal government's inability to protect its inmates from each other. But in the end, he couldn't escape his own desperado impulses.
Francis died in a shootout with law officers in eastern Utah on February 28. He was 42.
A former hunting guide in the Northwest, Francis spent most of the last seventeen years in federal prisons on armed-robbery charges. He was paroled to Oregon four months ago but soon dropped out of sight. His last run to daylight began when a sheriff's deputy in Utah's Duchesne County pulled over his Ford Explorer after spotting a stolen license plate.
Francis waited for the deputy to approach his vehicle, then drove off; a high-speed chase ensued. The deputy was soon joined by six other officers, some of whom had been fishing off-duty in the area. After 25 miles, Francis spun out on a snowy road in Indian Canyon. Authorities say he then charged the truck of one of the deputies, firing a gun. The deputy retreated, returning fire. Francis made it to the deputy's truck and took off again, only to crash into a hillside.
According to the account of the incident in the Salt Lake Tribune, Francis refused to surrender and continued to fire at the officers, none of whom were hit. He died in a hail of gunfire that peppered the truck.
A Utah state trooper described the dead suspect as a "drifter" with no known address. But Francis would have bristled at one erroneous detail that appeared in the weekly Uintah Basin Standard, which pegged him as a "high-ranking member of a nationally-known white supremacist group."
That kind of bad information dogged Francis during much of his time in federal pens. After he escaped from a jail in Phoenix in 1993, America's Most Wanted played up his alleged connection to the notorious Aryan Brotherhood -- a link that Francis and those who knew him hotly denied. After he was recaptured, his "white supremacist" rep made him a target of black gangs and drew scorn from the AB itself, one of the most lethal of all prison gangs.
The situation came to a head in 1997, when Francis found himself trapped in the middle of a bloody race war at the high-security Florence federal penitentiary ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). Unwilling to enter protective custody or ally himself with white gangs, he decided on a novel solution. One night, he and another prisoner, Robert Haney, were discovered on the yard with poles and homemade ladders. But at their trial, Haney and Francis mounted a strange but compelling defense. They weren't trying to escape, they insisted; they were trying to get caught and charged with escape so they'd end up in solitary confinement -- without being branded as snitches. Gang leaders testified that Francis had indeed been targeted for elimination and that he didn't have any gang protection.
A Denver federal jury found the pair not guilty of attempted escape, but convicted them of a lesser charge: possession of escape paraphernalia. Francis got the single cell he'd sought.
But then came parole, and a final disappearing act that fizzled. Surrounded by police, out of time and luck, Francis still had a choice of moves.
The decision he made -- to shoot it out on a lonely road in Utah rather than go back to prison -- said plenty about him. It also said something about the places he'd been.
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