Originally created 12/10/97

75-year-old fugitive found



LINCOLNTON, Ga. -- As a fugitive, Sam Turner should have been easy to find.

He didn't change his name. He wore no disguise.

For decades he lived in the same house outside Lincolnton, at the corner of Elam and Turner drives -- the latter named after him. He went to church, raised a family and earned the respect of townsfolk -- even the sheriff.

But on Monday, after his arrest by state agents, his friends and family learned Mr. Turner was a convicted killer who walked away from a prison work detail 46 years ago.

The 75-year-old fugitive spent one night in state custody at the Augusta State Medical Prison near Grovetown before his release was ordered Tuesday afternoon by Georgia Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner. Mr. Turner was granted an emergency leave to return home until the parole board can consider him for special clemency.

Mr. Garner has spoken with members of the state parole board, seeking special clemency due to Mr. Turner's age.

"I told them that the years have covered his past, that age and family have made him a different man," Mr. Garner said. "Continued punishment for Sam Turner serves no good purpose."

Even the men responsible for Mr. Turner's arrest Monday hoped the old man would be freed soon.

"We've got to do our job," said Duke Blackburn, executive assistant to Mr. Garner. "But I hope he can go home and live out his life with his family before long."

No charges will be filed for the escape and officials expect Mr. Turner's sentence to be commuted to time served, said Mike Light, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.

"Our state prison beds are better suited to younger, more violent offenders," he said.

Mr. Turner killed Charlie Lipford in a gunfight in Augusta on May 10, 1947. He was sentenced to three to five years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, paroled in 1950 and returned to prison 10 months later after a burglary conviction.

Although sentenced to another five to eight years, he vanished the afternoon of May 7, 1951. He was on a roadside work detail when he "asked to be excused and never returned," according to records. A $25 reward was offered for his capture.

Efforts to find missing prisoners were stepped up in the last two years, after Mr. Garner took office in December 1995 and tripled the size of the Georgia Department of Corrections' fugitive squad.

"Since he beefed that up, they've captured 202 escapees," Mr. Light said.

Mr. Turner's name surfaced during a routine check of the Corrections Department's database of driver's licenses. He had recently renewed his license.

"His Social Security number and date of birth matched up with a driver's license application," Mr. Light said. "We just checked it out and it was him."

His closest friends and many family members were oblivious to Mr. Turner's past, Mr. Light said.

Betty Jo Turner, the wife of Turner's cousin, said Tuesday she had no idea Turner was being taken to prison as she watched from her house across the street as officers put him in an unmarked car.

"They were taking pictures and things," Ms. Turner said. "I said, they must have just won a car."

"It was either a deep-dark hidden secret, or maybe a secret that only he and a few close friends knew about," Mr. Light said.

Those who know Mr. Turner described him as a responsible citizen and an active member of Newberry Missionary Baptist Church.

"I don't know why he was in prison. I never suspected anything like that," said Wilmer Byrd, former plant manager of now-defunct Oxford Industries, Mr. Turner's former employer.

For 14 years, Mr. Turner worked as a sewing machine mechanic at the Oxford clothing factory. He was trusted with a set of keys, Mr. Byrd said.

"Most of the time, he opened the plant in the morning and closed it at night," he said. "I have nothing but good things to say about him."

Everyone had good things to say about Mr. Turner.

"Quite frankly, I was shocked to learn he had been arrested," said Bruce Beggs, Lincoln County clerk of Superior Court.

The man who walked away from a Georgia chain gang had become a community leader -- someone to be counted on, said Mr. Beggs.

"He was very judicious about following up on any business he had to do," said Mr. Beggs. "Even before I was clerk, he had been commissioned as a notary public."

At one time, Mr. Turner supervised others who ran afoul of the law, said Lincoln County Sheriff Edwin Bentley.

"He was in charge of our community service about three years ago," Sheriff Bentley said.

For about two years, Mr. Turner made sure those sentenced to community service did their time.

"He did it for a while until his health didn't permit him to do it any longer," Mr. Beggs said.

Mr. Turner likely will keep his distinction as Georgia's longest-running fugitive. The next-oldest escape warrant on record was filed in the 1970s, Mr. Light said.

Arriving home Tuesday evening, Mr. Turner was greeted by his 23-year-old grandson, Fred Turner.

"Y'all gonna cook?" the elder Mr. Turner said.

Asked how he was doing, although bent and gripping his cane for support, Mr. Turner smiled.

"Doing pretty good! Couldn't be much better," he said.