By Bob Hembree
Lake Powell Chronicle
PAGE – Tucson Fire Department and Tucson Police Department responded to a fire and an explosion April 16, 2019. No one was in the home and the owner, 72-year-old Francis James Bligh, couldn’t be located. According to Tucson Police, “Shortly after the fire (and) explosion occurred, a witness saw a vehicle leaving the scene at a high rate of speed.”
Bligh’s car wasn’t at his home when firefighters and police arrived. It was found the following day and, based on evidence found in the car and inside the destroyed home, investigators concluded Bligh was dead. His body has not been found. He was last seen at the Cowpony Bar in Tucson April 7, nine days before his house was set on fire. On the day of the fire, Bligh’s brother called from out of state, asking police to check on him.
When it looked like foul play, homicide detectives took over the investigation. They quickly found a person of interest for the arson. On April 24, 2019, detectives located and spoke to 30-year-old Brent Mallard in Maricopa County. After the interview, Mallard was arrested and booked into the Maricopa County Jail on felony charges for arson of an occupied structure, second degree burglary and felony criminal damage.
Police haven’t revealed what evidence points to 56-year-old Blane Barksdale and 59-year-old Susan Barksdale. According to the U.S. Marshall Service, the Barksdales are wanted by the Tucson Police Department for first degree murder, first degree burglary, arson of an occupied structure, theft of means of transportation, criminal damage and prohibited possession. Police later discovered Mallard is Blane Barksdale’s nephew. Michael Adams, a deputy U.S. Marshal in Tucson, told the New York Times, close to 100 firearms were stolen from Bligh's home.
Before fleeing Arizona, the Barksdales purchased a mid-nineties Fleetwood Flair RV. They drove cross country to New York state.
U.S. Marshal Charles Salina in New York state said, “Our task force in Arizona contacted us indicating that the two fugitives may be in the Henrietta area.” The call was received at 8 p.m. May 24. A plate reader near Eastview Mall in Henrietta detected the RV’s license. The Barksdales also used a credit card in the area. Once notified, deputies located the RV in a Hampton Inn parking lot at 11:15 p.m. At 4 a.m., the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force and the Monroe County Sherriff’s Department’s heavily armed swat team came to the door. The couple went peacefully.
Monroe County Undersheriff Korey Brown said, “Obviously they were wanted for murder. So, once we found it (the RV), we made sure that we had it under surveillance. We believed they were both inside and we were able to take our time before we went out to actually get them into custody. It gave us time to call our SWAT team in and come up with a tactical plan because we don’t know if they’re going to turn over peacefully or if they want to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Brown continued, “You just don’t know; so, we wanted to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. and when we finally made contact with them, they just turned themselves in peacefully and without incident. So, it ended up being a great outcome for all involved. We definitely believed they were armed and dangerous. You just never know, wanted for murder, how violent someone will be.”
In May, Brown told reporters in New York they did not search the RV because the case belonged to the Tucson Police Department saying, “We’re not responsible for the investigation. That’s up to the Tucson detectives that that will probably travel out here.”
Pima County Sheriff’s Office hired Security Transport Services to bring the Barksdales from New York to Tucson. Apparently contracting the task to STS was to save money.
On the way to Tucson, in Blanding Utah, Susan Barksdale feigned a medical emergency. The two guards stopped the transport van to assist her.
In an interview with KTAR News, U.S. Marshal David Gonzalez said, “they took advantage of these two, basically security guards if you will. They’re civilians. They tied them up. They left them out in the middle of nowhere. (The Barksdales) were able to get another vehicle from acquaintances up in northern Arizona.” Gonzalez said it took the transport team, “two or three hours to break out of the van. They kicked the windows out." By the time the sheriff's department got there, the Barksdales had an eight-hour head start.
Susan and Blane Barksdale drove the transport van and the friend’s pick-up truck to a spot near St. Johns, Arizona. They left the van, along with the two guards tied-up in the back. There was also another prisoner locked down in van, but he chose to remain. There was a gun in the van’s lock box the Barksdales may or may not have known about. The Barksdales were traveling in a red GMC Sierra pickup with Arizona plates 127XTY. The truck’s front passenger side and rear bumper were damaged.
Gonzalez said, “An individual, especially like Blaine Barksdale, is very dangerous. You know he’s facing murder charges He has a lot of history with the justice system, so they can be very, very dangerous, and we will treat them as so.”
Blane Barksdale has blue eyes; brown, shaved hair; is 6’5” and weighs 265 pounds. He has multiple tattoos on hands and arm, including swastikas. He has served two prison sentences for theft and drugs. While in prison, Barksdale was cited for multiple infractions, including narcotics, refusing to work, making weapons, refusing orders and smuggling.
Susan Barksdale has blonde hair, blue eyes; is 5’7” tall and weighs 110 pounds. No criminal history was found in public records.
At this time, the nearly 100 guns stolen are not accounted for. Adams said, “We have to assume that they somehow made their way back to that weapons cache.”
The U.S. Marshals Service is offering a $10,000 reward each for information leading to the arrest of Susan and Blane Barksdale.