COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In 55 years as a fugitive, Frank Freshwaters got caught twice.
The first time, in 1975, the escaped Ohio inmate’s good behavior helped him avoid a trip back to prison when West Virginia’s governor refused to extradite him, citing Freshwaters’ “flawless 16-year residency,” according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Despite multiple aliases and a warrant for his arrest, he had built such a good life with his stolen freedom that the governor concluded Freshwaters had been rehabilitated as a fugitive.
It would be almost 40 years before authorities tracked him down again.
When they did, using a fingerprint-matching ruse to coax a confession in early May, they said they found a 79-year-old widower apparently retired and living off Social Security benefits at a weathered trailer in rural Brevard County, near Florida’s east coast. The public phone listing was for William Harold Cox, an alias in Freshwaters’ case documents from the ’70s.
Investigators believe Freshwaters had lived in Florida since the 1980s. Why he wasn’t found until now seems a bit of a mystery, even to the cold-case investigator tasked in March with finding him.
“I can’t explain to you how or why he was able to run for so many years,” said Deputy U.S. Marshal David Siler.
Freshwaters, of Akron, was imprisoned in 1959 for one to 20 years for manslaughter after hitting a man with a vehicle and then violating probation. He was moved to a Sandusky prison camp and soon disappeared.
In the years that followed, Freshwaters had no criminal record, lived with a woman in West Virginia, had two children, was employed and met friends and neighbors who “vouched for his good character,” West Virginia’s then-governor wrote to Ohio officials after the 1975 arrest.
That arrest was almost accidental. When police stumbled onto Freshwaters, he was reported to be hiding under the sink at his home in St. Albans, West Virginia. Police got suspicious because they were there with a routine warrant to follow up his ex-wife’s complaint about being threatened, not to capture a wanted man.
Then-Gov. Arch Moore Jr. denied Freshwaters’ extradition after Ohio officials and the woman — with whom Freshwaters had had a “commonlaw-type relationship” — didn’t show up for hearings, according to the governor’s letters. Moore, who called the West Virginia warrant “bogus,” said he wasn’t excusing what Freshwaters had done in Ohio.
“However, the primary objectives in our corrections system are the rehabilitation of the criminal offender and the protection of society,” wrote Moore, who later experienced that system himself after pleading guilty to corruption-related charges. “I am of the opinion that Mr. Freshwaters has proved himself in the last 16 years to be an effective and responsible citizen of our state and would in no way endanger any member of society.”
David Means of Scott Depot, West Virginia, recalls working with just such a man in the 1960s, the chemical-delivery driver he knew as Bill Cox. He was a bit of a cutup who had a wife and “seemed to be a model citizen,” Means told the AP by phone.
“Inside he may have been completely different, but externally, no. … We enjoyed him coming in,” said Means, 77.
In Florida, the fugitive had a valid driver’s license and had worked as a driver for a landscaping company, said Maj. Tod Goodyear of the county sheriff’s office. There’s no indication he had run-ins with area law enforcement, Goodyear said.
“It sounds like he was a guy that went to work and then retired and didn’t bother people and stayed out of trouble,” Goodyear said.
Ohio court and prison documents call the man Frank Freshwaters, but he was jailed in Florida as Harold Frank Freshwater, and court documents filed by his attorney there referred to him with that last name.
Authorities said he has declined media interviews since his arrest.
Jim Cox, who identified himself as one of the sons of the man in custody, said by phone that the family isn’t commenting while it seeks legal help.
Freshwaters was returned to Ohio, and its prisons department says his first hearing before the parole board will be in August. Authorities say he also could be charged in the escape.
Means said he hoped his former buddy could get probation.
“He reformed himself,” Means said. “I mean, what one of us hasn’t done things that we shouldn’t have done?”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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