Man who called in tip that led to capture of Lois Riess says he’s not a hero

Published 8:22 am Tuesday, April 24, 2018

By Tim Harlow

Star Tribune

Lois Riess flipped back her silvery hair as she walked into a South Padre Island eatery just before closing time Thursday and stepped to the podium to look at a menu. That is all it took for an observant restaurant employee to know she was the Blooming Prairie, Minn., woman on the run.

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George Higginbotham had seen the seven-second video that showed Riess making the same move with her hair as she befriended a woman at an oceanside bar in Fort Myers the week before. Now the woman described by authorities as armed and dangerous for her role in two killings was standing five feet away

“I thought, ‘I know this lady,’ ” Higginbotham said Monday in an interview. “She had a smile on her face like a vacationer, not really worried that people were looking for her. She flipped her hair and that is what made it kick in.”

He called authorities and a short time later U.S. marshals arrested Riess at a restaurant down the street. She has been held since then in the Cameron County jail ahead of an extradition hearing at 1 p.m. Monday in Brownsville, Tex. Riess is wanted in Florida for the killing of Pamela Hutchinson and in Minnesota for the murder of her husband, David.

With South Padre Island being a tourist town just three miles from the Mexican border, Higginbotham said he sees a lot of white-haired women. He might not have even noticed Riess if his restaurant on State Park Road had been busy. But at 6:57 p.m., as he was closing down the backroom of Dirty Al’s, Riess opened the door. With few customers, he had time to get a good look at her as she checked out a menu. Riess was only there two to three minutes before she decided not to partake of fresh fried shrimp served at Dirty Al’s and walked out.

As she did, Higginbotham called police and another employee followed her and watched her get in a white vehicle and drive off to the north.

The whole time Higginbotham had many thoughts. “Should I tackle her? No, she might have a gun. Don’t get too close. What if I’m wrong? You kind of get excited,” he said.

He was right on target. About 20 minutes later, marshals caught Riess dining at the Sea Ranch Restaurant, putting an end to her four-week crime spree.

Since March 23, law enforcement had been looking for “Losing Streak Lois” as she was dubbed for her penchant for gambling and visiting casinos. She was suspected of killing her husband in their rural Blooming Prairie home and then cashing $10,000 in checks she forged. She was spotted at a casino in Iowa the next day, but police got there too late and Riess was gone.

On April 5, Riess surfaced in Fort Myers and was seen at the Smokin Oyster Bar. Surveillance video showed her flipping back her hair as she chatted with Hutchinson. Records show that Hutchinson paid for the dinner and drinks that night, the last time she was seen alive.

A day later, Riess is shown checking in at a hotel in Ocala, Florida using Hutchinson’s ID and credit card. She also had visited a Wells Fargo Bank to withdraw money from Hutchinson’s account. Between April 7 and 8, Riess was spotted at casinos in Louisiana, including one where she hit a jackpot. She was also spotted near Corpus Christi, Texas on April 8. It wasn’t until April 9 that authorities found Hutchinson shot dead in unit 404 of the Marina Village condos.

The nationwide search included a billboard campaign and videos that circulated on social media. Higginbotham had seen them.

Authorities thanked Higginbotham for the tip that led to Riess’ capture and so did relatives of Hutchinson, the woman Riess allegedly killed in the Fort Myers condo because they looked alike.

Higginbotham hardly calls himself a hero, but he was to Hutchinson’s family, he said. They called and thanked him for helping authorities find Riess. They are going to send him a thank you letter, he said.

“I just called, that is all I did,” Higginbotham said. “That was nothing like that guy in Tennessee who stepped in,” referring to the man who wrestled the gun away from a man who shot four people at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville on Sunday.

Higginbotham said he has seen lots of crazy stuff in is his time in South Padre Island, but nothing quite like this.

“This was unreal,” he said. “All I did was spot her.”