ORLANDO, Fla. — A man convicted of manslaughter walked away from an Ohio prison farm in 1959, then was allowed to slip away from law enforcement in 1975 and disappeared until a ruse to get his fingerprints led to his arrest in Florida this week, investigators said Tuesday.
Former Akron, Ohio, resident Frank Freshwaters, now 79, admitted his true identity when authorities confronted him Monday, according to the U.S. Marshals Service and deputies in Brevard County, Florida.
Marshals in Ohio had sought help from deputies there, and they created a ruse to get him to sign papers so they could check his fingerprints, which matched the decades-old arrest, said Major Tod Goodyear. The sheriff’s office declined to give further details of the ruse.
“We couldn’t go with a picture and see if it’s that guy,” Goodyear said. “You look different than you do 50 years ago.”
An old picture of Freshwaters came into play, when, after a week of surveillance, they confronted him with a question as he left his trailer in a rural area near Melbourne: Have you seen this man?
“They showed him the pic, and he said he hadn’t seen that guy in a long time,” Goodyear said. “Then he admitted it and basically said, ‘You got me.’”
The young man sent to the Ohio State Reformatory in 1959 had short, dark hair in his black-and-white mugshot, but here he was with a white beard, a ponytail and glasses, living in a weathered trailer in a remote area surrounded by palmettos and very few neighbors.
“It’s a nice place to kind of hang out by yourself if you don’t want people to know you’re there,” Goodyear said.
He had retired from a job as a truck driver and was living off Social Security benefits, Goodyear said.
He’d left clues about his identity over the past 56 years, and investigators traced those to his Florida doorstep, said U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott in Cleveland.
“We have a saying in the Marshals Service, ‘Let no guilty man escape,’ and that is so true in this case,” Elliott said.
Freshwaters pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge for fatally striking a 24-year-old pedestrian while speeding in a vehicle in July 1957, and his initial sentence of one to 20 years in prison was suspended. He violated his probation by driving and getting a driver’s license, and the then-22-year-old was imprisoned in February 1959 at the Ohio State Reformatory, according to the marshals and old court documents they provided.
He was soon moved to an honor camp near Sandusky, where he was reported missing on Sept. 30, 1959, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
His time on the lam was interrupted in 1975, when he was arrested on the Ohio warrant by authorities in Charleston, West Virginia.
Media reports at the time said his ex-wife alleged he threatened her, and police serving the resulting peace warrant found him hiding under a sink at his home in St. Albans. Investigators told reporters that Freshwaters admitted he’d fled to Florida, obtained identification and a Social Security number under the alias William Harold Cox and eventually moved to West Virginia, where he drove a mobile library for state government and worked for trucking firms.
When the governor in West Virginia refused to send him back to Ohio, he was freed and disappeared again, the marshals said.
An investigation by a deputy marshal assigned this year to target cold cases led authorities to Florida, where Freshwaters was living under the Cox name, the statement said.
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office said he was jailed as Harold F. Freshwater and was ordered held without bond because of his status as an out-of-state fugitive. Court records listed no attorney for him.
He declined to talk to reporters and remained jailed Tuesday night, said Cpl. Dave Jacobs of the Brevard County sheriff’s office.
Such cases of long-sought fugitives are not unheard of. A man who escaped from a central Ohio prison in 1992 was arrested late last year at 71 in Indiana, where he lived under an assumed name. And in 2002, a convicted murderer who fled a Tennessee prison in 1970 was arrested in central Ohio after living under an alias there for three decades.
A list of wanted felons on Ohio’s prisons website includes 15 people whose escapes date even farther back than Freshwaters’.
KANTELE FRANKO AND MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press
Franko reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writer Jennifer Smola in Columbus and Jennifer Farrar in AP’s News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.