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The Fugitive

When Margo Freshwater escaped from prison 32 years ago, she began a happy and law-abiding life, becoming a devoted mother, grandmother, and wife. Now,



On May 19th, an ordinary Sunday afternoon, a troop of plainclothes law-enforcement agents quietly converged on an athletic club in Columbus, Ohio. Their target, a convicted murderer and fugitive, had eluded capture for more than 30 years. As the agents surrounded the perimeter, Tonya Hudkins McCartor, a 53-year-old wife and grandmother, was leaving the club with her husband Daryl. In her arms was a baby boy, her 17-month-old grandson A.J. The boy's parents, Tim Hudkins and his fiancée, walked beside her. They had no reason to notice the quiet team of officers who had been watching the family for hours.

The McCartors looked no different from any other family. Tim, 22, had a shy, sweet smile and a slim, wiry build honed by his high school baseball years. He was Tonya's son from a previous marriage.

Tim and his pretty blonde fiancée Casey had known each other since they were 13; they later became high school sweethearts. These are not the kind of people who typically find themselves under heavy police surveillance.

Daryl McCartor seemed even less threatening. A Wichita-born truck driver with a calm demeanor, in 1989 he traded his job as a Pizza Hut supervisor for his own business and his own rig. Through a dating service, he met an insurance company administrative assistant named Tonya Hudkins. Like Daryl, she had grown tired of the corporate life. They met at a McDonald's for coffee. Soon, they made plans for a real date: a night on the town with dinner and dancing.

On the day the plainclothes agents were scouting them, Daryl and Tonya had been married for nearly two years. Tonya had quit her office job and joined her husband on the road, where they became a driving team. The two struggled to balance their checkbook each week, but they managed to get away occasionally to go horseback riding. And they spent a lot of time with Tonya's three children and grandchildren.

When the agents stopped the McCartors outside the club, the matter sounded, well, ridiculous. The agents wanted some woman named Margo Freshwater for a crime committed more than 30 years ago, a brazen, cold-blooded slaying. On December 6, 1966, a Memphis man, Hillman Robbins Sr., the gentlemanly father of a well-known golf pro, was found lying in a pool of blood in a back room of the Square Deal Liquor store on Crump Boulevard. Robbins had been shot five times in the head. Sometime that night, a man and his teenage girlfriend left the store with around $600 in cash. The man, a demented genius who confessed on several occasions to pulling the trigger, was declared incompetent to stand trial. But a jury of 12 men found the girl, Margo Freshwater, guilty of murder and sentenced her to 99 years.

She testified that she was an unwitting accomplice, frightened into submission by her boozing, unstable -- and much older -- boyfriend. Maintaining before and during the trial that she "never killed anyone," the 18-year-old Freshwater escaped from the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville in 1970. Along with another female inmate, she outran a guard, scaled a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire, and hitched a ride to Baltimore. Authorities nabbed the other fugitive within a month. But Freshwater went on to live an ordinary and law-abiding life as a wife, mother, and grandmother. She even returned to Nashville and Memphis as a tourist.

But not long after she arrived in Baltimore, Tennessee and Ohio authorities began looking for her and never gave up. (Freshwater was from Ohio originally.) Less than a year ago, they got a break in the case when they came across Tonya McCartor's name on a computer database and noticed that McCartor had the same birth date as Freshwater and was listed as being nearly the same height and weight. The clincher came when they pulled up Tonya McCartor's Ohio driver's-license photo and compared it with Freshwater's old mug shot from the 1960s.

"It was like looking at a mother and a daughter," says Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) special agent Greg Elliott, whose Internet sleuthing helped break the case. That discovery helped launch a meticulous investigation, during which authorities looked into McCartor's life and talked to her former employers. "We did interview a few people but not friends or family," Elliott says. "Really, we had to build a strong-enough case against her where we could obtain a search warrant and compel her to give up her fingerprints."

By May of this year, they believed they had finally built that case. On May 18th, a Saturday night, Ohio Bureau of Investigation (OBI) agent Gregg Costas dropped by McCartor's Columbus apartment. Costas, who had been tracking leads on the Freshwater case for nearly 10 years, saw a car. Freshwater was home.

Immediately, Costas contacted Elliott in Nashville, who flew up that night. The next morning, Costas and Elliott, along with other law-enforcement officials, followed the couple as they went about their day. When Tonya and Daryl arrived at the athletic club, Elliott and Costas visited a local judge to obtain the search warrant they'd need to take Tonya's fingerprints. During the time the two agents were away, another agent watched the happy family swimming inside the club.

When Tonya McCartor walked out of the club with her family, OBI agents and members of the Columbus Police Department quietly surrounded the middle-aged woman and told her, "We have reason to believe you are not Tonya McCartor but Margo Freshwater."

If Tonya was shocked that her long run from the law had drawn to a close, she didn't show it. She handed her grandson to the baby's mother. She gave her son a hearty, long embrace and told him, "Everything is going to be okay." She hugged her husband and said, "I always knew this day would happen." Then the agents led her to a police car. Within a few minutes, police matched Tonya's fingerprints to the prints obtained from Margo Freshwater more than 35 years earlier.

"She was emotionless," says Elliott, who has been with the TBI for 17 years. "She was very calm and quiet. She wasn't upset." The family, however, was stunned. "I started laughing," Tim says. "I thought it was a case of mistaken identity." Her husband had the same feeling. "I just thought they had the wrong person and I'd have her home that evening," Daryl says.

Her husband may never have her home again. Tonya McCartor is back at the Tennessee Prison for Women. And unless she's given a new trial or is granted clemency -- a doubtful prospect for a convicted murderer -- she will remain behind bars until she is an old woman, if not longer. Meanwhile, the man who confessed to the killing will probably die a free man.

"She's telling us to be strong and stick together, and that's what we're doing," Tim says. "This is a tough situation. But what happened doesn't make any difference. She is still our mother."

But the relatives of Hillman Robbins, the man who was murdered that evening in Memphis, feel that Margo Freshwater's day of reckoning has at last arrived. "I think she should spend the rest of her life behind bars," says Susan Robbins West, who was just 7 years old when her grandfather was killed. She remembers that her grandfather's slaying devastated her father. "It ruined my dad; it killed my dad," she says. "He had to go to the hospital and identify the body, and he never could get that picture out of his mind. He was never close to being the same. He was haunted by that until the day he died."

"My dad didn't talk about it a lot," says Rick Robbins, the deceased's grandson. "It tore his heart out."

In the fall of 1966, Margo Freshwater came to Memphis as a troubled teenager with a habit of attracting no-good boyfriends. Earlier that year, as a junior, Freshwater dropped out of Worthington High School in Ohio. She had gotten pregnant then tried to commit suicide, in part because of how the father of the baby reacted.

Freshwater grew up in a three-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood of Worthington, a suburb of Columbus. When she was 5 years old, her father walked out on the family, leaving her alone with her mother and two brothers -- one older, one younger. Freshwater's mother, friends recall, was a caring, loving woman and did her best to raise the family. She sold real estate and kept a roof over the family's head, but, according to those who knew her, she had a drinking problem.

"The mother had problems," says Bob Briggs, who went to high school with Margo and her younger brother Tommy. "We knew she had a problem, and everybody was pretty much aware of it."

Tommy Freshwater, who now lives in Chillicothe, Ohio, says that his mother tried her best to give the family a good life. After a troubled youth, Tommy went on to get two master's degrees in social and behavioral sciences. "There were dysfunctions in our family," he says without elaboration.

Still, Margo managed to live what appeared to be a normal life -- at least up until the time she got pregnant. Her brother says she was a good swimmer and an excellent sprinter for the school track team -- an athletic gift that she relied on years later when she outran prison guards. A tomboy in high school, Margo was neither popular nor unpopular, choosing to spend her time with a small circle of friends.

"I think Margo was too smart for high school," her brother says. "That's why she dropped out."

Margo kept her baby boy for two weeks before reluctantly giving him up for adoption. Soon after, she began seeing a new boyfriend who would change the course of her life forever. Having already served time for robbery in the Ohio state prison, Al Schlereth was not the kind of guy you'd want to bring home for dinner. Tommy describes him succinctly as a "thug." He also liked to gamble. But Margo cared deeply for him, and when he was arrested for armed robbery in Memphis, she took a 15-hour bus trip to come to his aid.

"I knew when she went to Memphis there would be trouble," her brother recalls. He was right. When she arrived in the Bluff City, Margo hired a chain-smoking, hard-drinking attorney named Glenn Nash to represent her boyfriend. A plain-looking man with brown hair and pale skin, Nash, 38, had been cleared earlier that year of two federal charges involving theft of money orders and treasury bonds. His law practice was in jeopardy -- he had nearly been disbarred years earlier -- and he was having money problems. As a way to help make ends meet, Nash also worked as a karate instructor.

Nash met with Margo at the Hotel Claridge, where she was staying. She later recalled on the stand that when Nash arrived, he was already drunk. She tried to talk about the case, but the married attorney ordered a pint of whiskey and started to flirt with her. She shrugged him off, and he passed out on the bed.

Margo went home to Columbus but returned to Memphis within weeks, after Nash told her that he needed her help in a convoluted ploy that he promised would free her incarcerated boyfriend. Nash picked her up from the bus station and found her a baby-sitting job with a couple who would provide her with room and board. Within a week of her return to Memphis, she and Nash became intimate, she later testified in court.

While it might have been an odd turn of events for Margo to start sleeping with her boyfriend's lawyer, she was only 18 years old and vulnerable. As it turned out, Nash didn't need Margo's help with the case, and she decided to return to Columbus. But Nash wouldn't let her go.

Only two people really know what happened the night of December 6, 1966 -- when Hillman Robbins' life ended in a series of gunshots. One of those people, Glenn Nash, has been found to be legally insane. The other person is Margo.

The state Corrections Department is not allowing Freshwater to talk to the media, so her trial testimony about what happened that night is all there is.

That afternoon, Nash had gone to visit her at the house where she was baby-sitting. When he arrived, Nash asked her if she had any whiskey. When she said she didn't, he told her that he was going to go get some. Freshwater wanted to get out of the house and asked him if she could join him. He said yes, and she brought the baby along.

The two visited the Square Deal Liquor store, where the brutal murder occurred hours later. Prosecutors later alleged that Nash and Freshwater were casing the joint. Freshwater testified that when she went to the bathroom at the liquor store, Nash bought whiskey, and then they returned to the apartment. Simple as that.

When they got back, Nash quickly became drunk. Although she was still making plans to visit her boyfriend in prison the next day, Freshwater was going on a date with a neighbor that evening. Unaware of her plans, Nash parked outside, honking his horn. She got back in the car and they argued about his wife, who had learned of the affair.

Nash then wanted to get some more whiskey, and when Freshwater asked to get out of the car, he wouldn't let her. Shortly afterward, he drove away and clipped a telephone pole. She then told him, "I'll drive before you kill us both."

They drove back to the Square Deal Liquor store, and Freshwater followed him in, hoping to get the drunk Nash in and out quickly so she could go back home and get ready for her date. But Nash had other plans. Nash told Robbins to hold up his hands. "This is a holdup," he said. Freshwater testified that she was stunned. Nash told Robbins to put the money in a bag, and the three of them went into a back room. She said that she argued with Nash, telling him that this was "insane." A customer walked in, and Nash ordered Freshwater to pretend she was an employee.

Under cross-examination, Freshwater was asked why she didn't tip off the customer. She replied, "I didn't want to die."

After she waited on the customer, she returned to the back room, and Nash walked to the front of the store. She noticed that Robbins was tied up. She testified that she tried to free him. But Nash slapped her around a few times and said, "Didn't I tell you I would kill you if I caught you trying to do something I told you not to do?" Freshwater's reply, according to her testimony: "Yes, but please don't kill me."

Nash then had Freshwater go to the car, and as soon as she did, she heard a series of loud noises. "When it finally registered in my head what it might be, I tried to decide whether I should run, whether I could get away from him or not," she later testified. "He came out and told me to get in the car behind the wheel."

Freshwater testified that she began to cry and that he warned her that if she left him and went to the cops, the customer that she waited on would be a witness against her. He also told her that he used two guns to implicate her, something that Nash has corroborated.

The couple fled to Olive Branch, Mississippi, where they stopped at a hotel. The two had sex, which the prosecution later used as evidence that Freshwater was in on the robbery and that she was never afraid of Nash. For the next three weeks, they drove around the Southeast, staying in motels or in their car, often telling people they were husband and wife.

Two more people were murdered while Freshwater and Nash were on the run. On December 18th, the two checked into the Holiday Inn in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Later that evening, Nash allegedly shot and killed Ester Bouyea, a convenience-store clerk, putting a bullet through her neck. His fingerprints were found on a grocery cart. Freshwater was seen at the store as well, but Florida authorities had no interest in prosecuting her for the murder. They only wanted Nash.

Just over a week later, the two were spotted walking in the rain without an umbrella in Millington. They called a cab, and the driver, C.C. Surratt, took them across the state line into Mississippi. The driver was later found dead, shot in the back of the head.

Later that day, the two were arrested after boarding a bus in Greenville, Mississippi. According to newspaper reports, they were smiling at each other shortly after they were handcuffed.

Later, Nash confided to inmates at the county jail that he killed Robbins, Bouyea, and Surratt. Nash also later told a physician treating him that he killed all three people because he needed the money. Subsequently, he told the psychiatric staff at a Mississippi hospital that he went on his killing spree because the victims were members of the bar association or a law-enforcement agency. Nash had been under investigation by the Memphis and Shelby County Bar Association.

Nash ultimately was found incompetent to stand trial in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. He spent 15 years in a series of mental institutions. But in the early 1980s, a Florida facility released him, and he returned to his modest home in West Memphis. Nash was deemed no longer to be a danger to himself or others. But a court never ruled that he was competent to stand trial for any of the three murders for which he had confessed. He remains free to this day.

Inside the Shelby County district attorney's office, there is a voluminous file on Glenn Nash stuffed with relevant newspaper clippings and court documents. In brief after brief, state prosecutors tried to make a case against the confessed murderer, but they could never convince a court that Nash was competent to stand trial. Even after he was released from a mental hospital into society, prosecutors couldn't take Nash before a jury. And the fact that Freshwater is back in prison hasn't changed the fact that Nash will continue to enjoy his freedom.

"We can't make a case; we've already made a case," says deputy district attorney James Challen. "We went forward with the case over 30 years ago, and he was indicted, but it was decided that he wasn't competent to stand trial." Challen says he knows of no new plans for the state to attempt prosecution.

In the 1970s, when Tennessee prosecutors tried in vain to prosecute Nash, they stated in court papers that they believed the homicidal lawyer had concocted the bizarre motive about the victims being members of the bar association just to make people think he was insane. They also said that Nash was extraordinarily intelligent. In fact, he had such a formidable mind that while incarcerated in the months after his arrest, Nash carried on seven games of chess simultaneously by mail -- even though he did not have access to a board or chess pieces. He was able to remember where the pieces to all of the games were.

"It is simply the State's theory that Nash is a very clever individual who, through his reading and observations while confined in the mental institution, can convincingly present himself as insane," a state brief against the lawyer read.

Although Nash confessed to the murders, Freshwater was tried in Mississippi for the cab driver's killing. Two trials, however, resulted in hung juries. She was then released to stand trial in Memphis for the murder of Robbins. (Florida authorities never prosecuted Freshwater for the murder of the grocery-store clerk there.)

Twelve men sat on the jury and once again heard stories of Freshwater's promiscuity, some of which were foolishly introduced by her own lawyer. But the trial seemed to be going all right for the defendant. In fact, state prosecutors didn't challenge Freshwater's testimony that Nash was the triggerman -- if anything, they substantiated it. Even a star witness for the prosecution, a barely literate ex-con named Johnny Box, testified that when he and Freshwater were in jail together, she confided to him that she was scared of Nash. He then asked her if she shot Robbins, and she told him no.

The state's case rested on the fact that Nash and Freshwater were lovers. Based on that, the state argued, she was clearly a motivated and willing accomplice. It didn't matter whether she pulled the trigger. According to the law, an accomplice in the course of a murder is just as guilty as the triggerman. The prosecutor even referred to Freshwater as "Bonnie," the infamous gangster Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame.

On February 6, 1969, the jury found Freshwater guilty of first-degree murder and handed her a sentence of 99 years. According to The Commercial Appeal, the verdict stunned Freshwater. After all, the two Mississippi juries, both hung, were dealing with essentially the same kind of trial as the Memphis jury.

A year later, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld her conviction. A few months after that, Freshwater escaped from prison and began a new life. n

To be concluded next week. A version of this story originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.

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