Thursday, July 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Tacoma Woman Shot In Arizona -- Prison Break Ends As She, Husband Die

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Detectives investigating the shooting deaths of a Tacoma woman and her prison-inmate husband at an Arizona prison say they have found evidence of an attempted prison break.

The woman, Rebecca Thornton, 38, was heavily armed when she drove up to the fence outside Arizona State Prison at Florence yesterday and opened fire into a prison vegetable garden where her husband was working.

Rebecca Thornton was fatally shot by prison guards. Her husband, death-row inmate Floyd Thornton Jr., 36, also was fatally shot. Just who shot Floyd Thornton - prison guards or his wife - isn't clear.

Officials speculated that Rebecca Thornton may have had an agreement to shoot her husband if the escape was not succeeding.

An autopsy tomorrow is expected to answer the question, said Camilla Strongin, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections.

But some witnesses reported that at one point the 44-magnum handgun Rebecca Thornton fired was aimed at Floyd Thornton's chest from "close proximity," said Virginia Strankman, an Arizona Department of Corrections official.

Strankman said Rebecca Thornton fired five rounds from a Chinese-made assault rifle - three from a car and two more after she got out of the vehicle.

Then she fired a sixth round from the handgun.

Floyd Thornton was a native of Baker, Ore. He has convictions for auto theft in Kitsap County in 1980, escape from a King County work-release facility in 1988, and first-degree burglary in Lincoln County, Ore., in 1985.

Hours after yesterday's shootings, Arizona authorities still were puzzled about Rebecca Thornton's motive, but detectives later found evidence of an attempted breakout.

Investigators discovered that Floyd Thornton's leg restraints had been cut off, apparently with a razor blade found in the prison garden, Strongin said.

The restraints are two leather cuffs connected by a chain that death-row inmates are required to wear, she explained.

The leg restraints of two other inmates also had been partially cut, Strongin said, indicating they would have fled with Thornton if the escape attempt was working. The two other inmates did not get up and run with Thornton.

Rebecca Thornton a "nice lady"

In the Highland Hill neighborhood of Tacoma, Rebecca Thornton was known as a "nice lady, a quiet lady with a lot of courage."

Tom Serpa said Thornton's former neighbors on South Howard Street were "blown away" by the reports out of Arizona.

Serpa, who lived across the street from Rebecca Thornton, said it's hard to believe she was mixed up in the Arizona incident.

"Oh, man, we just can't see her trying to break somebody out of prison," Serpa said. "She was just so quiet."

Serpa recalled that Thornton took an active role in helping rid the neighborhood of suspected drug dealers.

"It ticked her off when her space was being invaded" by customers of a suspected drug house two doors away, Serpa said.

"She would call up and say, `Did you see that?' talking about all the cars coming to that house," Serpa said. "Some would park in front of her house and she would go outside, right in front of them, with a pad of paper and take down license numbers. That took some guts."

The license numbers were given to police. The neighborhood attention eventually drove away the suspected drug dealers.

"Becky was a key player in doing that," Serpa said.

He said Thornton and her brother moved into the neighborhood of 1940s-era, two-bedroom bungalows about two years ago. He believes she moved out about six months ago.

Rebecca Thornton arrived in Florence in December, having become acquainted with Floyd Thornton by mail when he was being held in Yuma, her landlord said.

Landlord Richard Lake said Rebecca Thornton told him she kept a gun and was a good shot.

When he once asked her why she married Floyd Thornton, she said, "I just wanted to brighten up his life."

Strongin said the marriage to Thornton was her fifth.

Becky Thornton did not have a criminal record, which would have prevented her from visiting a death-row inmate even if he was her husband, Strongin said.

Records show Rebecca visited Floyd eight times between Dec. 7 and Dec. 30, and four times between June 15 and June 29, their last visit. They also could have communicated via telephone and letters.

Strongin said the Thorntons were married Jan. 17 in a prison ceremony. Since then, Rebecca had lived across a busy thoroughfare from the prison's vegetable garden.

Strongin said that shortly before 8 a.m. yesterday Rebecca Thornton drove her car next to the fence near the prison garden, where her husband and other inmates were working, and opened fire.

Number of shots fired

She fired through an open window of her car, got out and continued firing the rifle, then the handgun, Strongin said.

Floyd Thornton had been hit several times by nonlethal beanbag shots and rubber-ball shots from several of the guards who accompanied death-row inmates to the garden, Strongin said.

The inmate ignored the blows and continued to run for the fence, Strongin said.

He was shot as he ran, Strongin said.

Another of the guards then fired one round from a 12-gauge shotgun, killing the woman, Strongin said.

To escape, Thornton would have had to climb over an 8-foot fence topped with razor wire, Strongin said.

In Thornton's car, prison authorities found a sleeping bag, clothing, two semiautomatic handguns with extra magazines and additional ammunition, Strongin said.

Strongin said Floyd Thornton was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of 74-year-old Dale Duke.

Thornton also escaped from jail while awaiting trial for a 1991 slaying.

Strongin said Thornton gave prison authorities the name of a man in Washington to contact in case of his death. However, there was no information where in the state that person might live.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!