CLEARWATER — The case against a man who lived as a fugitive for nearly 20 years after he was accused of molesting two teens was dropped Friday after it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired.
With prosecutors offering no objection, Circuit Judge Michael Andrews granted a public defender's motion to dismiss the charges against Terry Rugg.
Rugg, 50, was charged in 1993 with sexually molesting a 14-year-old runaway and another young boy, but he disappeared before authorities could arrest him. He lived under an alias until his September arrest on a traffic violation in Polk County revealed an outstanding warrant and his true identity.
A story that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in December detailed Rugg's run from the law — a flight that was prolonged largely due to the failure of authorities to pursue him.
He was arrested in New Jersey in 1994, but the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office declined to have him extradited to Florida and he was let go. He was later arrested multiple times on minor charges in Polk County while using the name Peter Jackson. But a check of his fingerprints in a statewide database repeatedly failed to reveal that he was Terry Rugg and that he was a wanted man. Authorities were unable to determine why that happened.
Pinellas County sheriff's officials also acknowledged that for much of the time Rugg was a fugitive, no one bothered to look for him, even though he was living with his parents in Lakeland and would have been easy to find.
The 1993 case wasn't the first time Rugg was accused of molesting kids. In 1987, he was sentenced to probation after a conviction on a child sex abuse charge.
After his arrest in September, Rugg was sent back to Pinellas County, where he bailed out of jail. At a court hearing in December, he denied the charges against him and blamed authorities for not pursuing him, while also expressing confidence that the case would be dismissed.
Prosecutor Holly Grissinger said she regretted the case's outcome.
"The law is what the law is," she said. "There is nothing we can do."
After Rugg's defense filed the motion to dismiss, Grissinger said, prosecutors researched the statute of limitations to see if there was any way Rugg could still be brought to trial. State statutes, as they were written in 1993, allowed prosecutors three years to make their case. That time limit had long passed.
Asked whether she was concerned, given the nature of the charges, that Rugg could be a danger to young people, Grissinger declined to comment.
"I can't comment on what he is or isn't," she said. "I can tell you, based on the rap sheet that I saw, the only charges he had after this were drug offenses."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was also disappointed at news of the case's dismissal.
"I think it's unfortunate," Gualtieri said. "Any time the statute of limitations results in something like this, it's unfortunate. It should be decided based on the merits and facts of the case. But the law is the law, and we have to respect the decision."
Though the Rugg case began long before Gualtieri became sheriff, he previously acknowledged that his office should have pursued the fugitive. He blamed the lack of an adequate warrant tracking system, among other issues.
Rugg did not appear in court Friday to hear the judge's ruling. A man who answered the phone late Friday at the Lakeland home of Rugg's parents told a reporter not to call again before hanging up.