STORE employees recount Christmas Eve burglary during prison escapee's trial

Tuesday, August 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ Sandra Rodriguez says the group of men walked into the sporting goods store, shoved guns in her face and threatened to pull the trigger if she didn't obey every order.

One of the men touched her inappropriately and another grabbed her by the hair and kicked the back of her knees, Rodriguez testified about the Christmas Eve robbery at Oshman's.

Her testimony Monday came during the opening day of the murder trial of George Rivas, one of seven Texas convicts who escaped a maximum-security prison and evaded authorities for weeks.

Rivas is charged with killing Officer Aubrey Hawkins, who was shot 11 times outside the Dallas-area sporting goods store.

Other witnesses testifying Monday said the inmates ran the robbery like a military operation, lining up the 16 employees, ordering them into the break room and tying them up together.

``I thought I was going to die,'' Oshman's area manager John Lindley testified. ``I thought they were lining us up to shoot us.''

At one point, Rodriguez noticed that her friend's fingers were tied so tight they were turning blue. She said she ``got hysterical'' and demanded Rivas cut her friend's fingers loose. He agreed.

Lead defense attorney Wayne Huff pointed to that episode as a sign that Rivas and the others never intended to hurt anyone.

``They wanted to get the property, get away from Oshman's and get out of town,'' he said.

The seven convicts escaped from a south Texas prison on Dec. 13. Six of them were caught in Colorado six weeks later, while the seventh committed suicide as authorities closed in.

Rivas is serving one of 17 life sentences, most of them for armed robbery. If convicted in Hawkins' death, he faces the death penalty or life in prison.

The other five, who also face capital murder charges, will be tried separately.

Oshman's manager Wes Ferris testified that Rivas led the methodical, 33-minute robbery as the other inmates held employees at gunpoint.

``He did all the talking, telling us what to do and when to do it,'' Ferris said, adding that Rivas warned him not to try to thwart the robbery. ``He said 'Don't try it. If you do, I'll have to shoot you and if I shoot you, I'll shoot everybody.'''

Rivas has admitted shooting Hawkins, and State District Judge Molly Francis is allowing his 21-page confession to be used as evidence.

While Rivas has admitted to his part in the shooting, Huff said it was unplanned. Rivas only wanted to disarm Hawkins, but then other defendants began firing and everyone suddenly was ``in panic mode,'' Huff said.