Fugitive Surrendered After 42 Years Because It Was 'Right Thing to Do'

Ronald Bridgeforth was known to his college students as Cole Lee Jordan.

November 11, 2011, 1:21 PM

Nov. 12, 2011— -- Cole Lee Jordan seemed to have the classic middle class American success story, having worked his way up from being a janitor at Washtenaw Community College to earning a master's degree and becoming a guidance counselor at the school.

But Jordan was really Ronald Bridgeforth, a man who engaged police in a shootout at a San Francisco discount store on Nov. 5, 1968, after he was confronted for allegedly using a stolen credit card to buy $29 worth of clothes and toys.

Four decades later, despite living a comfortable life under his alias, Bridgeforth, 67, decided to come forward.

On Thursday, after calling ahead, Bridgeforth arrived at the Hall of Justice in Redwood City, Calif., and surrendered to police.

"He said it was the right thing to do and it's all about family," Bridgeforth's attorney Paul Harris told ABCNews.com. " He wanted his sons to grow up to be the man he was today, not the young man he was on Nov. 5, 1968."

After being confronted on that day in 1968, Bridgeforth allegedlypulled a gun on the officers and fired two bullets into a police car. Police fired back, shooting him in the foot. No officers were injured in the scuffle and Bridgeforth was taken into custody.

He pleaded no contest to the shooting, but jumped bail in 1969 and went to Africa for a year, where he knew no one.

"He was 23 and scared," Harris said. "His lawyer said he'd serve life in prison because California had indeterminate sentencing at that time, meaning he could be sentenced to something such as five years to life."

After a year, Bridgeforth came back to the United States and assumed a new identity as Cole Lee Jordan. He settled in to life in Ann Arbor, Mich., with his wife, Diane, who was the only person to share his secret. Bridgeforth's two grown sons only recently learned of their father's past.

He even severed ties with his mother to keep his identity secure.

Bridgeforth got a job working as a janitor at Washtenaw Community College in 1978, according to Janet Hawkins, spokeswoman for the school.

"Throughout his work here, he went to school and took on various jobs," Hawkins said.

She told ABCNews.com Bridgeforth earned a bachelors degree in general studies from Wayne State University in 1986 and a masters degree in counseling from Eastern Michigan in 1993.

He was licensed by the state of Michigan as a professional counselor in 1994 and became a faculty member at Washtenaw Community College in 1998, where he had worked as a student adviser ever since.

Despite exposing his past, it seems Bridgeforth is still well-loved, according to Harris. He said he expects to make Bridgeforth's $25,000 bail today, thanks to the level of support that he said has been pouring in "from all over."

Bridgeforth knew in coming forward that he also faced charges related to the 1971 fatal shooting of an officer. He was alleged to be the getaway driver, but he denied any involvement. Harris said his client wasn't even in the state at the time of the incident.

The San Mateo deputy district attorney announced that those charges would be dropped, the Associated Press reported.

Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti is asking a judge to sentence Bridgeworth to five years in prison, Harris said, but he's hopeful his client will walk away with probation or at worst, up to one year in prison.

Despite giving up his freedom, Harris said Bridgeforth's family is proud of him for setting things right.

And after 41 years, he even got to have a long-awaited emotional reunion with his mother, who is now 82 years old.

"His family is by his side right now," Harris said, adding: "[Ronald] is one of the most dignified, good people I have ever worked with."

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