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Longtime Florida prison fugitive free again thanks to Missouri judge

Oscar Eugene Richardson has a knack for two things: getting out of jail and disappearing from the law.

He did it in 1979, when the convicted armed robber escaped from a work release center and wasn't seen again for 30 years.

Not until Saturday, that is, when the U.S. Marshals caught him living under an alias in Missouri and arrested him.

Yet Richardson is a free man once again.

Despite spending three decades on the run from Florida authorities, a Missouri judge on Monday set bail of $25,000 for the fugitive — ignoring the protests of the local prosecutor.

The 61-year-old Richardson, who has lived in Missouri under the name of Eugene Ward all these years, was released on bail from the Taney County jail that afternoon.

His next court date is Feb. 11. Will Richardson be there?

"Yes, of course he will," said his Missouri attorney, Dee Wampler.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement touted Richardson's capture at a news conference Monday as the first win for its "12 Days of Fugitives" hotline, a Christmas-themed effort to nab violent escapees who have been on the run the longest.

Later that day, an Associated Press reporter told FDLE that Richardson had slipped away once again. The agency's head was left fuming.

"I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the irresponsible decision of Judge Tony Williams to allow Oscar Richardson to post bond," said FDLE Commissioner Gerald M. Bailey in a prepared statement. "Richardson is a violent felony offender who was serving time in Florida for an armed robbery conviction when he fled after serving only a fraction of his sentence.

"Allowing this fugitive to walk out of a courtroom after hiding from authorities for 30 years diminishes the seriousness of his crimes and shows a lack of sensitivity for those he victimized and a disregard for the safety of the citizens of Taney County."

Richardson landed in prison because of two armed robberies he committed in Tampa in 1977. That January, he held two drugstore employees at gunpoint and demanded money. Then in March he robbed a Tampa convenience store at gunpoint.

He was less than two years into a 10-year sentence when he escaped from the Kissimmee Work Release Center in 1979.

Shortly after his escape, an FDLE agent told the Associated Press, Richardson made his way to Missouri.

He used a false Social Security number and became Eugene Ward. He spent 26 years in the same house, had a long-term relationship and fathered a child. Then Saturday, federal agents found him in Ridgedale, Mo., near the Arkansas state line.

Richardson was stunned. So was his girlfriend.

" 'It's not me. How did you find me? Who told you?' " is what Richardson wanted to know, FDLE Special Agent Jim Madden told the Associated Press. "Those were the things he was most interested in finding out."

At Richardson's arraignment Monday on a fugitive warrant, his attorney told the court they're going to fight extradition back to Florida. Under Missouri law, according to Taney County Prosecutor Jeffrey M. Merrell, a judge can set bail for another state's fugitive.

"We were opposed to the bond and we made that positively clear to the court," Merrell said.

But one possibility for Florida authorities to sidestep Missouri's courts, Merrell said, would be to obtain a governor's warrant for Richardson's return from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Then the defendant's bail could be revoked, the prosecutor said, and he could be sent back to Florida without an extradition hearing.

"We are working closely with Missouri authorities to aggressively pursue Richardson's extradition to Florida," said Bailey in a statement. "His debt to our state remains unpaid."

Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Longtime Florida prison fugitive free again thanks to Missouri judge 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 11:15pm]

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