Originally created 07/31/98

Mace still eluding capture

AIKEN -- The hopeful voice with no name on a police radio said it all: "Daylight's on our side this time."

But as dusk began to fade to dark Thursday, and as midnight approached, for the second-straight day fugitive John Travis Mace continued to elude capture. Bloodhounds picked up his scent around a house off Pine Log Road at U.S. Highway 278 earlier in the day, but the escapee was not there.

A South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division helicopter circled overhead, and the area was cordoned off by police. But there was no sign of Mr. Mace, who Wednesday had led scores of officers on a reckless chase through southern Aiken County and into Augusta, part of the time driving the wrong direction on River Watch Parkway, at speeds sometimes exceeding 100 mph.

Thursday's chase was expected to even the odds because the jail escapee was on foot and apparently had been since wrecking his stolen car Wednesday night near Beech Island. Bloodhounds and helicopters with infrared sensors failed to detect him in the area around Heights Baptist Church, where the commotion interrupted the choir, rehearsing an anthem, Exalt Him, for Sunday services.

That search was called off around 3 a.m.

Mr. Mace walked away from Aiken County Detention Center a week ago. He was there awaiting trial on multiple charges that could put him in prison for life under South Carolina's new two-strikes law. He was under arrest on charges of burglary, forgery, grand larceny and possession of crack cocaine, all allegedly committed while he was out on bond from earlier charges.

Initially, police did not consider Mr. Mace a dangerous fugitive but they do now. He crashed into several vehicles during his wild flight Wednesday, and authorities believe he stole a gun and ammunition from a house near Beech Island on Thursday.

There were no confirmed sightings of Mr. Mace for more than 12 hours Thursday until a Beech Island minister found him asleep in his underwear in a vacant house late that afternoon.

The Rev. Frank Hyder, pastor of Beech Island's First Baptist Church, said he went to a rental property he owns on Williston Road at about 4 p.m. and found the fugitive inside.

"When I drove into the driveway, I saw the front door was ajar," the Rev. Hyder said. "I went in, and he was asleep in front of the door with a fan on and the back door open to circulate the air. When I confronted him, he rolled over and put on his blue denim shorts that were there on the floor.

"I told him, `You're the man they're looking for,' and he said, `No, no, it's not me."'

The Rev. Hyder said he tried to detain Mr. Mace in the house, but the intruder ran out the back door. The minister chased Mr. Mace around the house, but he fled into nearby woods.

Left behind in the back yard was a blue duffel bag with clothing and a pistol inside. Authorities later confirmed that the gun had been stolen from a house across Williston Road. Authorities would not say whether they think Mr. Mace is armed.

There was no telephone in the house the Rev. Hyder owned, but he said he didn't need one because a sheriff's deputy was patrolling the neighborhood.

Within moments, police communications crackled and officers began to converge on the area. So did news reporters and photographers. Mr. Mace's father, Robert "Ronnie" Mace, made a public appeal to his son to surrender and offered to go into the woods himself with a bullhorn to broadcast that plea directly. He said he feared that the heavily armed police would shoot his son if he emerged alone. His offer was turned down.

Two other area residents briefly encountered Mr. Mace, who was bare-chested and wearing a gold chain necklace. The two men yelled for Mr. Mace to stop but he ran into the woods.

Police said they were searching an area larger than the six-mile perimeter they had cordoned off Wednesday. Bloodhounds led them to a house at 271 Pine Log Road at about 6:15 p.m., but Mr. Mace was not there.

Near midnight, police spokesman Lt. Michael Frank said they would continue the search until Mr. Mace was caught, or until they knew he wasn't in the area anymore.

Thursday was also a tense day for others involved in the Mace case.

It was a birthday Tina Withrow will never forget, no matter how hard she tries.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, she posted bond for her 18-year-old daughter Jennifer Lyn, charged with obstructing justice because authorities believe she helped Mr. Mace, a former boyfriend, elude capture by supplying him with food and money. She was with him for four days on the run but says he kidnapped her.

Bond was set for her at $25,000 by Judge Joey Addie.

Ms. Withrow was told to report to the September term of criminal court in Aiken, which begins one day after Labor Day on Sept. 8.

"I just don't think it's fair," said Tina Withrow as she leaned against the exterior brick wall of magistrate's court on Hampton Avenue awaiting her daughter's release from the Aiken County Detention Center. Ms. Withrow had been there since Wednesday. "In her heart she knew what she had to do. I would have done the same thing. Any woman would have in that situation. She didn't want to trigger that temper of his."

The wait seemed endless as Tina Withrow stood guard for her daughter. Then, at about 11:22 a.m., Ms. Withrow walked out, her golden hair pulled into a ponytail. Before being met by a pack of news media, she and her mother embraced.

Then came the questions, all to which Ms. Withrow had no answer. Shielding her face from cameras, the teen-ager said, "I don't want to talk about it."

"If they'd have kept that SOB in prison, none of this would have ever happened," said her mother, who was supposed to be celebrating her birthday. "I'm proud of what Jennifer did. She got home safe. She's gone through enough pain and punishment, and I don't think any jury will convict her. She did what she had to do."

Tina Withrow said she plans to hire an attorney. Meanwhile, she is seeking counseling for her daughter through the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons.

Patrick Weber also was released Thursday on $25,000 bond -- $10,000 for obstructing justice and $15,000 for possessing cocaine. Charges of supplying false information to officers and privy to a felony were dropped.

The Mace chase

July 23, sometime before noon, John Travis Mace, 27, escapes from the Aiken County Detention Center.

July 24-25, just after midnight, Mr. Mace abducts his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Lyn Withrow, 18, from the home of a friend, where she is visiting, on Jaywood Road.

Monday, mid-afternoon, the couple are seen at an Edgefield County motel. Police converge, but miss them by 15 minutes.

Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., Ms. Withrow comes home. She says that Mr. Mace dropped her off on Grey Fox Road, a quarter mile away, and left in a stolen 1998 Toyota Rav4. They have been in Hilton Head and Savannah.

Wednesday, 1 p.m., Ms. Withrow is arrested and charged with obstructing justice. Also charged with helping Mr. Mace elude police was Patrick Weber. Six hours later an Aiken Public Safety officer spots the Toyota Rav4 at Aiken Mall. It appears to be empty. But within minutes, Mr. Mace is behind the wheel and speeding away, beginning a high-speed chase to Augusta and back into South Carolina. At 8:20 p.m., Mr. Mace leaves the car in a ditch at U.S. Highway 278 and S.C. 125 and runs into the woods by Heights Baptist Church. Helicopters, bloodhounds and scores of officers fail to find him. The search is called off at 3 a.m.

Thursday, 11:22 a.m., Ms. Withrow is released from the Aiken County Detention Center on a $25,000 bond. Mr. Weber, 20, is also released Thursday. At 4:30 p.m., Mr. Mace is seen running from an abandoned house near Beech Island, across the street from where a gun and ammunition have been reported stolen. Police surround Tavelle Place subdivision, at U.S. 278 and Pine Log Road and continue their search for Mr. Mace. He was still on the loose as of 7:30 p.m.

Staff Writers Todd Bauer and Kevin Bonsor contributed to this article.


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