When Felons Escape

Law enforcement responds in different ways

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

On the night of May 15, retired Louisiana prison Warden Frank L. Jobert Jr. ponders the fate of Andy Fowler, a convicted killer who escaped from his custody almost 25 years.

On June 16, 1989, Fowler vanished from a highway work crew on Interstate 12, dispatched from a former state minimum-security prison at Jackson Barracks in the Lower 9th Ward.

Jobert was warden over the 369 inmates in the work release facility, which closed in ’94.

Jobert retired from the state department of corrections (DOC) in 2003, more than a decade ago. (For more, read this column in the October ’12 issue: “Behind the Wire.”) He admits “fugitive Fowler” (the DOC’s term) has never been far from his thoughts.

After two decades as warden over thousands of adult and juvenile prisoners in Louisiana, Fowler is the only inmate Jobert has not yet accounted for.

“It would be interesting to catch him,” Jobert says. “He’s been out 25 years. Or, he might have died under an assumed name.”

If alive, the Pearl River, man is 59 years old and he has been a fugitive for roughly half of his life.

Fowler was convicted in 1984 in the beating death of Rickey Fontenot, 48, also of Pearl River, who died the previous year after the two men fought over a woman. Fowler had served five years of his 16-year sentence for manslaughter when he escaped. He has been on the FBI’s wanted list since ’90.

Jobert hopes that Fowler’s long run without a felony arrest means he has stopped drinking to blend into society. “Most alcoholics don’t go 25 years without an arrest,” he says.

At worst, Jobert says he hopes Fowler has started a new life, perhaps with a job and an unwitting wife, like another Barracks escapee who enjoyed 17 years of freedom. (That fugitive was exposed after being booked by undercover police in New York City on a false charge of soliciting prostitution.)

On the night of our May 15 telephone interview, Jobert says he had no idea that fugitive Andy Fowler’s 25-year run from the law would end the next day.

At about 4:25 p.m. Friday, May 16, armed FBI agents from Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans surrounded a car and arrested Fowler at a lonely rural intersection, outside Semmes, Alabama. The agents acted on a tip received earlier that week, the FBI said in a terse press release.

I immediately called Jobert for his reaction.

He said he and his wife were driving to see the movie God Is Not Dead. When he called back, he sounded stunned. Shock gave way to excitement, and an expectation that 25 years of history would soon be revealed.

Unfortunately, the mystery of Fowler’s whereabouts over the last 25 years has only deepened during the two weeks since his arrest. Strangely, a reporter’s requests for information about the FBI’s success in catching Fowler – and other aging fugitives – have hit a (stone) wall.

He was extradited from Alabama and quickly returned to the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, like a lost ball tossed back over a neighbor’s fence.

Warden Jobert has another theory about Fowler’s arrest: “I think because you started investigating the escape, a fire was lit under someone that led to his capture.”

Or it may be serendipity.

On Jan. 8, 2014, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Wilkinson Jr. sent new U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite a list of 77 “inactive” criminal cases, which were “open and pending for an inordinate period of time with no action having been taken to actively pursue prosecution.” The cases ranged from 1972 to 2012, covering every prosecutorial era from U.S. Attorneys Gerald Gallinghouse to Letten (justice.gov/usao/lae/former_usa.html).

They included the 1990 federal warrant for fugitive Fowler, the first criminal case assigned to then-federal prosecutor Greg Gerard Guidry, now an elected justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

On Feb. 28, Duane A. Evans, chief of the criminal division under Polite, asked that the court allow nine “active” fugitive investigations on the list to remain “open” including the case against Fowler (2:90-mj-00244).

Evans also asked the judge for more time to research five criminal complaints filed in 1994, ’96, ’97 and 2004 that “remain sealed.”

“There is no supporting documentation to assist the government in identifying the defendant(s),” Johnson wrote.

On Feb. 28, Judge Wilkinson ruled he was “SATISFIED” with Johnson’s “full and complete report” on the 77 cases.

Through a spokeswoman, Johnson declined to discuss the FBI’s “active investigations” of the nine fugitives, including a 1976 murder-robbery-and-arson warrant filed by the late iconic prosecutor Al Winters.

Under former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, the arrest of a 25-year prison escapee like Fowler would have merited at least a press conference.

Letten might have cited five-year statistical tables by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts showing the average federal prison escapee is recaptured within only one year. He would have emphasized any federal regional cooperation with state and local authorities.

There would be corny stanzas about how the “FBI never sleeps,” but the public would know a lot more about both its government and how a fugitive can avoid the FBI for almost 25 years.

William “Trap” Trepagnier, 70, recently retired as the NOPD’s top fugitive chaser, says fleeing felons who don’t brag and don’t drink can avoid arrest - if they follow traffic laws: “You stop at stop lights. You don’t speed. You don’t tell anybody who you are. You don’t go into barrooms.”

A recent USA Today investigation showed thousands of fugitives escape justice by simply crossing state borders. Disparate computer systems, arrest protocols and a lack of communication work in favor of the fugitive – and against federal, state and local enforcement. “Hopefully, they all talk to each other, but in reality they don’t,” Jobert says.

Details of Fowler’s escapade may help validate or disprove findings of flawed fugitive apprehensions and poor coordination by the FBI and U.S. Marshal’s Service, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General reported in 2005. (OIG Audit Report 05-37)

Today, Andy Fowler is confined at Hunt Correctional Center, a state medium-security prison at St. Gabriel. “The Department does intend that Fowler will serve the remaining time he has [10 years] in DOC custody as well as any additional time that may get added on as a result of the escape,” DOC communications director Pam Laborde says.

How he spent the last 25 years since his escape on June 16, 1989 is still unknown.

“Andy was clean-cut, intelligent and never gave us any trouble,” Jobert recalls.

Prisoner No. 105595 was a trustee with no prison disciplinary record during five years.

He worked as a clerk-typist for one of the colonels at the Louisiana National Guard facilities at the Barracks and Camp Villere. After he escaped, the colonel lamented how difficult it would be to replace Fowler, Jobert recalls. “He said he was sorry to see him go.”

Jobert says he’s eager to catch up with Fowler. Yes, the former warden says, he would accept a collect call from the prison housing the former fugitive. “My number is still in the book.”

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