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."

"Our father raised us to be loving and caring girls and strong girls and to be there for each other," said Christina Greer, one of Free's daughters.

Of Jack Hazen, the man Free used to be, Greer says, "That's not our father."

Authorities are now attempting to extradite Free to Florida. A Florida Department of Corrections spokesman would not say how the department's cold case detectives finally located Free.

Free plans to challenge his extradition at a March 10 hearing, though he is unlikely to succeed. "You can't beat an extradition, particularly one like this," said Las Vegas prosecutor Bart Pace, who is representing the government in the extradition hearing.

If he is extradited, Free will have to serve between three and six-and-a-half years in prison, according to the department of corrections. A local prosecutor also has the option of charging him with a separate crime for escaping prison, which carries at least another five years in prison.

Spencer Mann, chief investigator for the state attorney's office in Gainesville, said he had not located an escape warrant for Free.

Escaped inmates "were convicted of a crime, given a sentence and they need to pay their debt to their victims and society," said Gretl Plessinger, a department of corrections spokesperson. "Secondly, the vast majority of fugitives continue to commit other crimes and finally recapturing fugitives sends a strong message to those currently incarcerated that if you escape, we will find you."

Free's attorneys plan to petition Florida governor Charles Crist for clemency and are asking authorities to speed up the clemency process, which attorney Don Pumphrey said normally takes about three years. A spokeswoman for the state Office of Executive Clemency said she could not comment on Free's case.

Free and his attorneys fear he may not survive that long in prison. Even the bus ride from Nevada to Florida may be a struggle for Free, who takes daily medication, they said.

"The wheels of bureaucracy will grind Charlie up if somebody doesn't step in and do the right thing," said Conrad Claus, Free's Las Vegas based attorney.

Jail Could Kill Him: Lawyer

"The [medical] problems that Charlie has are the sort of things that will kill him over the next six years if he doesn't have the support of his family and the support of his family doctor," Claus said. "He will die alone in prison."

Free's family is now pleading for authorities to show mercy on the man they've known as Charlie Free.

"Please give him a second chance," Kathy Free said. "He deserves to be right where he belongs in his home with his family. This is where we've always been. This is where he needs to be."

As for Free, he says the "lesson of my life is first of all — live a good life. Don't get in trouble. You gotta know right from wrong … And now I know what's right and what's wrong. I know I did wrong and I gotta go back and do time. But I don't want to. I don't want to lose my family."