Fugitives caught, head to court after Tennessee chase, wreck

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ricky Wedgeworth and Darian Pierce, the escaped Louisiana prisoners captured Monday, were to appear in federal court in Memphis this morning to face kidnapping charges that could result in the death penalty, Vicksburg police Lt. Bobby Stewart said.

“Today is one of the best days, knowing they are not out there anymore and can’t hurt anyone else,” said Heather Ross, the daughter of the Sunbury, Ohio, man the two are accused of carjacking in Vicksburg and killing in their flight to Alabama and eventually Tennessee after escaping from a Louisiana state prison work detail March 4.

Stewart said Wedgeworth and Pierce will face federal charges stemming from the carjacking in Mississippi and homicide in Alabama in the slaying of David M. Cupps, who disappeared in Vicksburg March 7 and was found dead near a Bessemer, Ala., motel two days later.

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Federal prosecution also will include at least larceny of a vehicle — possibly upgraded to carjacking — in their theft Monday of a county pickup in Jackson, Tenn.

Police called the theft, which ultimately led to their capture, desperate, as Wedgeworth, 36, and Pierce, 33, emerged from hiding for nearly a week, tied up a county park employee in Jackson, Tenn., and took the truck.

Officials were notified a short time later, and when the truck was spotted about 85 miles away in the Memphis suburb of DeSoto County, Miss., near Olive Branch, a high-speed chase ensued and led back into Tennessee before the fugitives ran after crashing the pickup at a busy southeast Memphis intersection.

Pierce suffered minor injuries, Stewart said, and was treated at a Memphis hospital and then released to law enforcement. The convicts remained in the Shelby County Jail this morning, he said. Along with the federal charges the two also will face unlawful flight charges in Louisiana.

Ross said her father had been to Vicksburg numerous times in his contract work at Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station, where he inspected wells.

“He was a very loving, caring husband, dad, grandfather to soon to be nine grandchildren,” she said. “He just loved them, loved to take them camping.” Cupps was also a fan of NASCAR, said Ross, one of four daughters Cupps left, along with his wife of 27 years, Della.

Ross said the family was listening through a cell phone application to the Memphis police scanner during the chase of Wedgeworth and Pierce.

“When they said they caught the two guys, we were just very relieved and glad that they had not hurt the ranger they tied up, or anyone else,” Ross said. “Less than a minute after they said they got them, Lieutenant Bobby Stewart called my mother. He promised her he’d call her first, and he did. We are all so very thankful for all the law enforcement, especially Bobby Stewart, that we just thank them so much.”

The arrests end a nervous ordeal for citizens of Jackson, Tenn., who were asked Monday by Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson and other law enforcement officials to be vigilant and cautious while more than 100 investigators from state law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI scoured the area looking for the men.

In Vicksburg, too, reports of possible sightings continued Monday, with at least two calls to 911 from residents who thought they spotted one or both fugitives.

Wedgeworth, who was serving time for armed robbery and Pierce, for attempted second-degree murder, had escaped March 4 from a state prison near Baton Rouge.

They are believed to have hitchhiked to Vicksburg and spent the weekend here before carjacking Cupps from a parking lot of a motel on Pemberton Square Boulevard.

The fugitives were pulled over on Interstate 40 in West Tennessee a day later, on March 8, in Cupps’ rented car, but they were able to get away.

Cupps’ body was found the next day, and authorities said he had been beaten and strangled.

The fugitives were not spotted again until Monday, after they tied up the park worker in Jackson. The worker was found at about 1:30 p.m., and he said the men asked him how to get to Interstate 40, Madison County, Tenn., Sheriff David Woolfolk said.

Mr. Cupps’ funeral was Friday in Westerville, Ohio.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.