A Free Man for 30 Years, Fugitive Faces Prison

For the last 31 years, Charles Free has lived an ordinary life. He fell in love, married and raised two children. He spent more than 20 years in the Las Vegas construction business, working his way up to project manager. His family calls him a caring man, a model citizen.

Over the years, if his wife asked why he seemed nervous around police officers, or his children wondered why he never mentioned his past, he brushed their questions aside.

But when FBI agents knocked on his door at the end of January asking for Jack Allen Hazen, Free knew why they were there.

He turned to his wife Kathy and confessed the secret he'd hidden for decades. "'I'm an escaped convict," he said. "I think I'll be going away for a long time.'"

"And I walked out the door."

Watch Charles Free's story tonight on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

Unbeknownst to his wife and children, Free had been living in plain sight as a fugitive since he escaped from a Florida prison in 1976.

He is now fighting extradition to Florida, where he faces up to another six and a half years in prison, according to the state Department of Corrections. But Free, now 62 years old, is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's, a brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and heart disease — and his family fears that this time he may not make it out.

"This is the worst nightmare you could possibly have in your lifetime," Free told ABC News Senior Law & Justice Correspondent Jim Avila in an exclusive jailhouse interview.

"I don't want to die in prison," he said.

Kathy Free and their two daughters said they have forgiven Free for his past. "It's not right," Kathy said of his arrest. "He needs to be home with his family."

Back when he was known as Jack Hazen, Free admits that he robbed someone at knifepoint. He said he was out of work, still shaken from his tour in Vietnam and had no food or money.

"I had people spit on me. It was unbelievable. People called me a baby killer," he said.

"I just got to the point where I said, the heck with it — I'm going to go out and get what I need to live," Free said. "And I did. I know it was wrong. I had to pay for it."

He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. About a year into his sentence, Free says he heard other inmates planning to light his cell on fire.

The next day, he walked away from work crew and escaped into the swamps near Gainesville, Fla. He says he eventually found a highway and called a taxi.

Hiding out at a motel in Jacksonville, Free says he found a student ID card at the front desk.

It said Charles Danny Free.

Free says he used the ID to get a social security card and other forms of identification. He moved to Arizona and started his life over as Charles Free. Eventually, he met his wife and moved his new family to Las Vegas, where he began working in construction.

"Everybody started calling me Charlie. And I didn't have a record anymore," Free said. "And I was moving up in the company. People had respect for me and I had respect for them."

Free at Last

Since then, Free and his family say, he has led a crime-free life. His family says Free went out of his way to keep younger men he met out of trouble and to treat his friends and neighbors with respect.

"I put myself in a completely different environment," he said. "I lived a good life. I treated people with respect. And I got respect in return, which was something I never had before."

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...