Exactly 22 years ago today, Russell Bucklew ended a love triangle and the life of a Cape Girardeau man for getting involved with his ex-girlfriend. Former Cape Girardeau County prosecutor Morley Swingle had hoped the anniversary of Michael Sanders’ death coincided with Bucklew taking his final breath. Bucklew was scheduled to die by lethal injection between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 6 p.m. Wednesday. Swingle, who served as the prosecutor in the southeast Missouri county from 1997 to 2012, planned to be a state witness in Bucklew’s execution.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in on Tuesday and Swingle’s hope quickly faded. For the second time since 2014, the highest court in the land blocked Bucklew’s execution. An appeal by his attorney argued the same claim as in 2014 – lethal injection could be gruesome and painful because a tumor in his neck could rupture and cause him to choke on his own blood.
At the state prison in Bonne Terre on Tuesday, Swingle told Missourinet that Bucklew deserves the death penalty.
“I’m disappointed that 22 years have passed and he is still breathing. He is such an evil and cruel man,” said Swingle. “I’ve gotten the death penalty four times but in my mind, he deserves it more than any of the ones I’ve gotten the death penalty on. Missouri has a death penalty and it should be carried out on the worst of the worst. Bucklew is the worst of the worst.”
Many details of the case are still vividly in Swingle’s mind.
Stephanie Ray and Bucklew were romantically involved. When things went south, Swingle said Ray tried to break up with him. Bucklew responded by tying her to a bed with dog chains, putting a knife to her throat and threatening to kill her.
She talked him into sparing her life. When he stormed out, she went to the police. They issued a warrant for his arrest.
Ray went into hiding by staying with Sanders, who was a friend from work. But, it wasn’t long before Bucklew decided to go looking for them. He armed himself with two guns, two knives, two sets of handcuffs and a bunch of ammunition.
Bucklew, who was staying in Troy with relatives, drove to Cape Girardeau County and found Ray. According to Swingle, Bucklew followed her home and knocked on the door. Sanders’ young son answered the door and let Bucklew in.
Bucklew shot Sanders to death in front of his 6-year-old son, three other children and Ray. He handcuffed Ray and dragged her out of the house. He took her to a remote area and raped her in the back seat of the car, according to Swingle.
Many law enforcement officers were out searching for Bucklew. By the time the ex-couple made it to St. Louis, a state trooper and Bucklew exchanged gunfire. The 49-year-old survived two bullets in the shootout – one to the chest and one to the head.
Once Bucklew was in jail, he called Ray’s mother and threatened to kill her. Three months after entering jail, he became the first person in 15 years to escape from the Cape Girardeau County Jail. Swingle said Bucklew fled by hiding in a trash bag that was later taken to a dumpster.
When Bucklew escaped, he went straight after Ray’s mother, Barbara Pruitt. He went to her home, armed with a hammer, and struck her over the head several times. Pruitt’s fiancé intervened and was also whacked over the head with the hammer. Both victims managed to survive.
Swingle said Bucklew fled in a stolen a car and was caught about 30 minutes later by law enforcement.
“I do think he’s the most evil person I’ve ever prosecuted, as far as he would let nothing stand in his way of hurting other people,” he said. “I called him a homicidal Energizer bunny. That’s not the kind of thing you can say with any kind of humor in a murder case usually, but the evidence in this case supported that because you could shoot him, you could put him in jail, and nothing is going to stop him from coming and trying to kill the people he was mad at.”
Swingle, who’s nearing his second year as a St. Louis city prosecutor, said the way the case has affected him is that he’s still a prosecutor trying to protect the community from criminals.
“You’re the last thing between a dangerous person like Russell Bucklew and the streets.”