Late Monday evening, Herbert Elsea and his older sister, Kitty, left their home of Bristol, Tenn., and headed south to Florida. It was a place to which, 20 years ago, Elsea had sworn he would never return.
He was a wanted man for violating his probation on an old drug charge. He had been content to ignore the matter till he died, but the government wouldn't let him.
Elsea, 63, can't draw Social Security while he's a fugitive.
So his sister picked him up Monday, and they drove through the night. Elsea hoped for mercy.
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Back in 1990, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Elsea's Pontiac Grand Prix for a cracked light. A search revealed 4 ounces of marijuana in the trunk. Elsea pleaded guilty to the felony drug possession charge and spent 60 days in jail.
While on probation the following year, Elsea asked for permission to go to Tennessee because his father had died. When he got there, he said, he realized he needed more time. He called his probation officer.
"I'm going to be a day late," Elsea recalled telling her. She told him that if he wasn't at his probation meeting the next day, he would be in violation.
"I have to go to my father's funeral," he recalled telling her. "So I guess I'm in violation."
And he never came back. He said he has lived a quiet, rambling life since then — a few years working construction in Bristol, then several managing a beach-front motel in Biloxi, Miss. He returned to Tennessee after Hurricane Katrina. He drove a truck for a bit. Then he retired.
That's when his past bit him.
Last summer, he got a letter from the government saying his Social Security payments were being halted until he resolved the outstanding warrant for his arrest. Elsea, a lifelong bachelor, put it off and lived off his savings as long as he could. His sister kept at him, saying he needed to just go and get this over with. His savings dwindled.
So this week he said goodbye to his cat, Tiny, whom his neighbors are feeding till he gets back. His sister drove, and, on Tuesday, they arrived at the Pasco County jail in Land O'Lakes. He walked up to the counter.
"I figured they would send me on my way," said Elsea.
He was handcuffed and booked. He has no bail. During his first appearance, he declined a public defender because he said he didn't want to "waste their time," he said Wednesday in interview with the Times. "I ain't no big deal." He said he had already pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana.
"I really don't see the point of a lawyer," he said. "I am in violation of probation.
"I signed something. I don't know what for."
Attorney J. Larry Hart, who is not working on the case, said because the original charge was a felony, Elsea could face up to five years in prison.
"I think anybody in this type of situation could benefit from counsel," Hart said.
Wearing a faded orange and white jumpsuit, Elsea talked about jail — he had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, he's sleeping on a mattress on the floor, the nurse hasn't seen him yet to get him his blood pressure medicine — and the gravity of the situation hit him.
He said he has been trying to call his sister, but the call won't go through. He wants her to know that he's okay and that he'll take the Greyhound home once he's out, so she shouldn't wait for him.
He rubbed his forehead. He had a terrible headache, likely from caffeine withdrawal. They don't serve coffee in jail.
Times reporter Molly Moorhead and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.