Crime & Courts

After 41 years on run, Ronald Carnes is back behind bars

Ronald Carnes, 69, escaped from prison in 1973 and survived by using two different identities until he was found out last year. Now he is at Bertie Correctional Institution to finish his sentence.
Ronald Carnes, 69, escaped from prison in 1973 and survived by using two different identities until he was found out last year. Now he is at Bertie Correctional Institution to finish his sentence. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Ronald Carnes spent 41 years on the run, one of the shrewdest fugitives in state history. He fled prison in 1973, so long ago he can’t remember where, and created a pair of fake identities to keep himself hidden.

As either Louie Vance or William Cox, he worked as a cab driver, a banquet waiter and a computer technician – jobs that took him to New Orleans and Puerto Rico.

He volunteered in boys’ clubs, libraries and hospitals at Christmastime – once organizing a Methodist church dinner.

In all those decades, he never got so much as a speeding ticket. It took facial recognition software to foil his ruse, catching him while he applied for a driver’s license in Iowa under a second name.

Now that Carnes is back in a North Carolina prison, inmate No. 006318 at Bertie Correctional Institution, this question arises: Should the state lock up a man who turns 70 this year for a robbery committed before Gov. Pat McCrory was old enough to drive?

His family and a former employer think not. A cousin, Jergene Delaney, sums up the family’s feelings: “The three years he served were enough.”

Police departments and court clerks can no longer find records relating to Carnes’ crime, yet he faces potentially nine more years behind bars to account for it. Up for parole at the time of his escape, he got turned down in December.

“The parole commission doesn’t discuss reasons” for its decisions, said Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. “I have seen some come back (to prison) after a long time, and the commission paroles them pretty quickly because they’re so old or in poor health.”

Meanwhile, Carnes got a card from his old employer’s granddaughter Ellie, age 7, addressed to Bill. “You are very nice,” it read. “I am sad that you are in prison.”

Carnes smiled to recall it: “She’s such a sweetheart.”

An angry young man

In the late 1960s, Carnes came to Washington, D.C., from the Midwest, determined to volunteer for the Black Panther Party. He describes himself at age 23 as an angry young black man.

“Having said that, I wasn’t gun-toting angry,” he said, voice tempered by the years.

The Panthers sent Carnes to North Carolina, a state he’d never visited, where he worked in a free breakfast program for underprivileged youths. They paired him with Richard Carter, a man he describes as far angrier. Their work there didn’t last long.

In September of 1970, Carnes and Carter walked into the Li’l General Food Store on North Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem, where Opal Stroud was stocking the shelves by herself. Records of what happened next can be found deep in the stacks of the N.C. Supreme Court Library.

Stroud testified that Carnes told her, “This is a holdup,” though he had no gun. From the store’s doorway, Carter held a .32-caliber pistol while Carnes took cash from the register, spilling much of it on the floor. Together, the pair escaped with $83.25, three bottles of wine and Stroud’s handbag, according to arrest warrants.

Decades later, back in prison, Carnes said he considered his partner a hothead. But the robbery came as a surprise.

“I knew he had a gun,” Carnes said. “But I didn’t think he was going to do anything like that. He pulled it out and showed it. Both her eyes just popped.”

On the witness stand in the 1971 trial, Stroud referred to Carnes and Carter as the “colored subject” and “the other boy.” Both got 15 to 20 years in prison for their sentence. For Carnes, it was a first offense.

Their public defender, Robert Sapp, raised numerous objections on appeal. For one, he wrote, the state had introduced “totally irrelevant evidence” of a second gun police found on the ground near where they arrested the pair which had no clear connection to the robbery. For another, he noted, Carnes hadn’t been allowed to use the attorney he’d hired, who needed time to prepare. But Sapp’s arguments fell flat.

Carnes said he felt cheated.

He never saw Carter again. State prison records show that he also escaped from prison in Caldwell County in 1974, then got released in 1995. The details are unclear. Acree said Carter’s records predate the state’s computer system and are incomplete.

New identities

Inmates who break out of prison, both real and fictional, tend to concoct elaborate plans that are harrowing to carry out. Escapees from Alcatraz floated on San Francisco Bay in an inflatable raft. Andy Dufresne from “The Shawshank Redemption” tunneled through the wall with a rock hammer and crawled through a sewer pipe for the length of five football fields.

Carnes’ escape lacks that inventiveness and romance. By the time he ran off, he’d served three years behind bars, enough to be eligible for parole. But by then, he’d given up hope that the state would ever cut him a break.

Details of the escape depend on whom you ask.

To Carnes’ memory, which he admits is fuzzy, he took off from a roadside crew. Guards forgot about him that day, he explained, and he simply walked off.

The state remembers it differently. Records show Carnes confined at now-closed Huntersville prison, also known as Mecklenburg II, where he sneaked away without anyone seeing him leave. Nobody missed him until an 8 p.m. count on Aug. 4.

Either way, Carnes guesses that he found new clothes at a Salvation Army, then got a job waiting tables until he’d earned enough for bus fare. In 1973, his name and picture would have traveled more slowly than today.

But the plan that kept him free 41 years hatched in a Chicago public library, where he searched through the microfilm for a new identity, hunting for somebody no one would remember. After several days, he stopped on news of a 1948 fire in Chicago that killed a 5-year-old boy named Lewis Vance and two other children.

He sent away for a copy of Vance’s birth certificate, and once he received it, he used that information to obtain a Social Security number in Vance’s name. In those days, people didn’t get SSN cards at birth, and the government handed a new one to Carnes without question.

“In the years that followed, Mr. Carnes would lead a remarkably inoffensive life,” wrote James Whalen, the Iowa federal public defender who argued for Carnes’ release when he was finally caught.

He moved to New Orleans knowing that it had ample hotel jobs, the sort of work he’d done before prison. To hear Carnes tell it now, he spent time employed at Antoine’s, the historic French Quarter restaurant famous for oysters Rockefeller. He later moved, he said, to a country club in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“I can walk into a hotel and start working the same day,” he explained.

Anytime he moved to a new state, he got a driver’s license there. He had a background check performed under his fake name so he could hand it to employers. He never broke the speed limit. He never drank alcohol and drove. He didn’t go to bars. He married once, briefly, and broke it off over his secrets.

“You’ve got to remember, everyone I’ve met in the last 41 years I’ve lied to.”

Later, he hunted down a second name, settling on a 5-year-old who died in a 1944 car accident: William Cox. From there, he developed his fictional personae.

Louie Vance was the expedient character, the waiter who could take a quick job and vanish. But Bill Cox took classes at Control Data Institute, learning how to install digital telephone systems and getting a job with GTE that took him from Ohio to California to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, Bill Cox studied biochemistry in Spanish.

Over all this time, Carnes kept up with family members, even attending reunions. None but a few of the closest relatives knew his secret. He popped up every few years, never staying long.

“I would say that was by design,” said Delaney, a second cousin who lives in Iowa. “I don’t think that he wanted to get his family in trouble by hoarding somebody who was on the run. He’s a gentleman. He is what we call old school. Still has his manners.”

When he took a job in Seattle in early 2003, he had developed back problems and spent a lot of time in rehabilitation. But when he showed up as a day laborer for Carl Bryant’s rebate business, his work ethic still shone. Of the five men hired that day, only three showed up for work on day two, and Carnes was the only man sober.

Bryant quickly promoted him to management, at which point Carnes explained that he’d need his W-2 filed under a different name for complicated reasons Bryant didn’t pursue in depth.

“What do I care if he has two names?” Bryant said, recalling the confusion. “He’s the best worker I ever had.”

They became close friends. Carnes, as Bill Cox, spent Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with Bryant’s family. He worked as bartender at the wedding reception for Bryant’s daughter.

“He babysat my grandchildren,” Bryant said.

Then one day he was gone. No word. No forwarding address. The next thing Bryant knew, a few years had passed, and it was 2014, and his friend had been arrested in Iowa, where federal authorities were calling him Ronald Carnes.

“At first,” Bryant said, “it was like whiskey-tango-foxtrot. What’s all this about?”

In January, Bryant flew to Raleigh and drove to Bertie County to visit his friend in prison. To Bryant’s mind, the world would keep turning just fine if Carnes enjoyed his last years in peace.

Finally caught

Carnes always knew he’d get caught. The certainty of it stayed with him for 41 years, even while he tried to convince himself that the old Ronald Carnes was dead.

It happened in Iowa last year. He’d gone to help Delaney after her husband died and decided to stay. At first, when authorities caught him applying for a driver’s license as both Cox and Vance, they had no idea his crime went deeper.

When they searched his home, they found Cox’s and Vance’s birth certificates, later learning that he’d collected Social Security and disability benefits in their names. Authorities also found a gun and, Carnes said, a transcript from his original trial.

“They kept looking at me, then back at the documents, then back at me,” Carnes said. “I told them, ‘I think this is a good time to make a pot of coffee.’ I’m too old to be breaking down doors and running for it.”

He was charged with several counts of fraud, including Social Security fraud. Federal prosecutors soon dropped their case, in part because the money he’d collected in Social Security was for hours he’d actually worked. They sent Carnes back to North Carolina to finish his sentence. He has not been charged with escape, and his next parole hearing is scheduled for December.

In successfully arguing for Carnes’ release in Iowa, Whalen, the federal public defender, wrote in a six-page letter to the U.S. attorney there that Carnes was “dramatically different” from the man in his criminal past.

“He has shown himself to be someone who is now a positive impact on society,” Whalen wrote, citing the various ways Carnes volunteered in the communities where he lived. “He is a person whose extended incarceration would come at great costs while accomplishing a net-negative.”

Carnes arrived at Bertie to great notoriety. When they first saw them, the much-younger inmates would point and whisper, “That’s him.”

Carnes tells them: “I’m a convict, man. I’m in prison. Ain’t nothing to jump up and shout about.” But he still enjoys the chance to offer some grandfatherly advice. Tidbits of wisdom picked up on the way.

He figures the state will keep him locked up at least a few years. He said the FBI interviewed him last month at Central Prison, asking him how he’d managed to stay at large. While he was briefly incarcerated there, authorities took his lower dentures, along with other personal belongings. He hasn’t gotten his teeth back yet, and he misses them.

In all, Carnes comes off both like a man trying to outrun his past and an aging fox who smiles at how long he outsmarted the chickens. Telling his story, going over long-forgotten details, he surprises himself and stops to laugh.

“That is crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “That is wild. That’s a wild story, man.”

Shaffer: jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

About the story

Information for this story comes from a lengthy interview the reporter, Josh Shaffer, did with Ronald Carnes in prison and through several letters. Shaffer corroborated Carnes’ story through the following sources: an interview with his former employer, Carl Bryant, both in person and through numerous emails; a telephone interview with Carnes’ second cousin Jergene Delaney; what records still exist with the state Department of Public Safety; trial transcripts and court documents on file with the N.C. Supreme Court; a lengthy letter from federal public defender James Whalen in Iowa; and previous media reports.

Several sources, including Carnes and spokesmen for state government, concede that memories have faded and some documents are unavailable, given the age of the case.

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