Florida Fugitives Caught in Minnesota Campground
A peaceful night of camping was all Jennifer Watson had in mind as she and a friend set up their tent Wednesday evening (Sept. 1) at Whitewater State Park, a picturesque idyll nestled among the winding ravines and limestone bluffs of southeastern Minnesota.
It was a remote part of the 2,700-acre park, and Watson assumed they were mostly alone.
Nearby, two men driving a pickup truck had pulled into another camping site about a stone's throw away. And off in the woods, as the campers fell asleep, federal agents and Winona County sheriff's deputies had moved into position, quietly encircling the pickup truck, the Minneapolis Star reported.
At 2 a.m., Watson said, she awoke with a start.
A blast tore through the night air. She heard men shouting and what she thought was gunfire.
"It sounded like they were right outside the tent," she said.
As she and her friend took cover in their tent, authorities rushed into the neighboring campsite and captured the two men, fugitives wanted for a triple murder last week in Florida. The cold-blooded slayings of a family in their home had authorities in Suwannee County, Fla., working with the U.S. Marshals Service on a nationwide manhunt for the men, who were considered to be armed and dangerous.
The captured men, James Lindsey Howze, 38, and Lonnie Robert Munn, 47, were taken to the Winona County jail. They face charges in the Aug. 25 shooting deaths of Joseph Militello Jr., 57, his wife Nancy Militello, 68; and their nephew Angelo Rosales, 32, in McAlpin, Fla. The victims own several businesses, and a former employee of theirs who was taken into custody in Florida last week, Keith Allen Hughes, 25, faces charges that he planned the Aug. 25 robbery and execution.
It's not clear if Howze and Munn had ties to Minnesota, but their pursuers had picked up the trail on Wednesday, when one of them used a debit card at Mike's Food Center, a supermarket in St. Charles, Minn.
Chief Bill Eckles of the St. Charles police department said an agent with the U.S. Marshals Service called his department at 5 p.m. Wednesday. A St. Charles officer viewed surveillance video at the supermarket and found images of two men who fit the fugitives' descriptions buying groceries with an unidentified woman. The three had driven off in a pickup truck 20 minutes before the officer arrived.
Eckles said his department searched the town for the truck but didn't find it; sometime later Wednesday a team from the Winona County Sheriff's office along with U.S. Marshals located the truck at a campsite in Whitewater State Park.
Shortly before midnight, park manager Brent Anderson's home phone rang. It was the Winona County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Ron Ganderude. By now authorities were watching the truck and waiting for the right moment to move in.
Watson said she didn't hear anything near her campsite until a loud boom, likely a stun grenade, broke the night air.
"We were woken up by screaming and hollering, 'Get down,' 'Don't move,' that kind of thing," she said. "It sounded like a whole battalion."
The two fugitives were sleeping and were captured without incident.
Unaware of what was happening outside her tent, Watson listened to the commotion and tried to make sense of it.
"We heard people in the woods going 'Where is he? Did you find him?' And we thought, 'Oh my God,' there's a desperate guy with a gun running around."
Fearful that a gunman might take them hostage if they stayed put, yet worrying that authorities might think they were the gunman if they ran into the night, Watson and her friend eventually decided to move. They unzipped their tent, crawled up a small hill, then began waving a lantern in hopes that police would see them.
A police officer from St. Charles saw them and told them it was all over. Two fugitives had been caught. No one had been hurt.
"He said, 'Go ahead and enjoy your weekend,'" she said.
Plenty of people plan to, it turns out. Anderson said the fugitives' truck was removed at 4 a.m., and by 8 a.m. he had new campers for the site. All 110 sites at the park are full for this weekend, he said.
Watson, who got to her site on Wednesday knowing that the park would fill up, plans to stay put.
"You can't lose a campsite," she said