Originally created 08/01/98

Mace search turns frustrating



AIKEN -- As darkness settled for a third night on the search for fugitive John Travis Mace, police brought out night-vision goggles and kept looking for the elusive jail escapee.

By Friday night, the search was tinged with frustration and the searchers drenched in sweat. It was no comfort to know that at least once during the manhunt, while officers sweltered in nearly 100-degree heat, Mr. Mace was not far away in an air-conditioned house near Beech Island that he'd broken into.

Evidence found later suggested that he spent several hours there in the cool. He ate, took a shower and possibly watched "Oprah" on TV. He also is believed to have stolen a gun and ammunition, which were left behind when the Rev. Frank Hyder surprised Mr. Mace, asleep in his underwear, in another house, this one vacant, nearby.

Unlike the two previous days, there were no confirmed sightings of the escapee, who walked off from the Aiken County Detention Center nine days ago, but Aiken city and county officers checked out numerous reports that Mr. Mace was eating in a Waffle House or walking along some street or other. In every case, the person seen was a man of average build with light brown hair, wearing blue denim shorts.

Ordinary people. And none of them Mr. Mace.

Official briefings dwindled to nothing. Officers from Aiken and North Augusta spent the afternoon searching cars that went in and out of Hammond Road, peering into back seats and checking the trunks. Friday's makeshift command post was underneath a massive shade tree at the intersection of Pine Log Road and U.S. Highway 278.

Some drivers passed by with thumbs up. Others honked and shouted out open windows, "When are y'all going to catch that dude?"

News reporters and photographers stood nearby with nothing to report or photograph. The fugitive's father, Ronnie Mace, stood with them. His son, he said, was surely still in the area.

"Hell, he knows if he goes somewhere else, he'll get caught. If he stays here, they'll have a hard time catching him," he said.

The intensity of the search has suggested a subject far more sinister than Mr. Mace's criminal history reflects. He is charged with multiple counts of burglary, forgery, grand larceny and possession of crack cocaine -- offenses all allegedly committed while he was out on bond from other similar charges.

But he has told a former girlfriend that he'll die before he goes back to jail, and nobody knows how desperate Mr. Mace might be to stay free.

Authorities say his history suggests that as long as he goes un-captured, he is likely to break into houses or steal cars.

By week's end, the search was beginning to wear on residents of the area around Heights Baptist Church and Redcliffe State Park. For them, every noise in the still country air raises neck hair and sets off inner alarms.

It's been that way since Wednesday night, when Mr. Mace wrecked his stolen car in front of Heights Baptist, disrupting choir practice around 8:30 p.m., and fled into dense woods.

Officers hardly needed to be called to the scene. Dozens were right behind the speeding car and had been for more than an hour in a harrowing chase through southern Aiken County, into Augusta, and back.

Mike Hunt, chief dog handler for Aiken Department of Public Safety, had been listening to the chase on a scanner and had bloodhounds ready to run. The chocolate-colored dogs with cowbells around their necks were there with their handlers a few minutes after Mr. Mace bolted from his car.

Hours later, it was Mr. Hunt's voice on the police radio, clearly frustrated, letting others know that the dogs had lost a scent.

Around 10:15 p.m., the telephone rang in the 1859 farmhouse on Hammond Road where Gus and Gloria Farmer live. They had been out until then, and it was the first chance neighbors had to tell them what was going on outside.

Gus Farmer went outside to see if his truck was locked and heard a noise "like something bumping up against tin."

They notified the police, and several officers came to search their barn.

David Towles and his family, who live nearby, came home late from a movie, driving along Sand Bar Ferry, which showed no sign then of the 100-miles-an-hour chase along it a few hours earlier.

Dogs were barking outside, and inside their telephone was off the hook. Officers also searched their property, including the barns, but found nothing. The Towles decided that the family cat had knocked the phone from its cradle.

Back at the church, with a State Law Enforcement Division helicopter flying overhead, the Rev. Finley Limehouse and Aiken County Sheriff Howard Sellers brought the searchers hamburgers and soft drinks.

The 13 people who had been there for choir practice had gone home by 10 p.m.

By the time that search broke off, sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., the frustration was deep, participants said. The dogs were panting. Their handlers dripped with sweat that stung in the scratches of brambles and branches.

On Thursday afternoon, when Mr. Mace surfaced again, officers were ready to get back to the chase. After the Rev. Hyder found him in a vacant house he owns, and Mr. Mace fled, he flagged down a deputy who was patrolling the area.

A few miles away, an off-duty state trooper who farms was working in his hay field with a scanner for company. He heard what was happening and headed toward Beech Island with a companion.

They saw Mr. Mace beneath a TV tower and shouted to him to halt. He didn't.

This time bloodhounds tracked the scent to the home of Herbert and Carol Grace near Tavelle Place, where officers determined the fugitive had been hiding under the porch. The Graces were not at home.

Officers surmised that Mr. Mace fled again when he heard the sound of the cowbells. It would be a sound he knew. Twice before, when authorities tried to serve warrants on him, Mr. Mace had run and been tracked by the dogs. On those occasions, he was captured. This time, so far, he has not been.

Nearly 100 officers were involved in the overnight search Thursday, many of them on their own time, said Capt. Pete Frommer, who helped maintain the perimeter of the search area, which is heavily wooded with scattered houses and a few fields. They searched every house and every out-building, and in one of them found only an angry swarm of bees.

"It's hard to sit for eight hours staring at the same woods, when nothing moves and everything blurs together after a while, but you have to keep in the back of your mind that any moment he could poke his head out. You're a piece of the chain. You can't give up. You can't let it get old."

One of the residents brought him a bologna sandwich and chips. Other officers could tell the same tale.

The perimeter was tightly held. There were so many police vehicles so close together that Mr. Mace could not have crossed that line without walking in the lights, Capt. Frommer, said.

About 10 p.m., the search shrank to a skeleton crew -- three police cruisers with two officers each patrolling the search area. Normally, one vehicle and one deputy are dispatched to the area, said Maj. Jody Rowland of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.

"We've been 24 hours without a significant lead," he said.

Again, authorities were waiting for someone to spot Mr. Mace.

Bloodhounds and helicopter were gone.

And so, somewhere, was the man who apparently has no intention of going back to jail if he can help it.

Staff writers Todd Bauer, Kathy Steele and Chasiti Kirkland contributed to this article