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Living off the land, fleeing the law

It was the first brief, fierce clash.

A Citrus County sheriff's deputy arrested a young man suspected of burglary. A scuffle broke out. Relatives say the young man wound up bleeding, a fracture to his skull. Eventually, he served three years in prison.

Twenty years, four prison terms and eight arrests later, the same man, now middle-aged, clambered over a razor wire fence, jumped down onto the sandy soil outside the Citrus County Jail and ran into the pine forests he has hunted and fished in since boyhood.

For the next two weeks, Frank L. Wiley apparently lived off the land in the county he has terrorized his whole life, his only possessions apparently a cane fishing pole, a jug of water and toilet paper.

Then, nearly 20 years after his father, Herb, arrested Wiley for his first felony in Citrus County, Jim Bergman was part of the team of deputies that put the 46-year-old career felon back in jail Friday.

It's a coincidence only possible in a county as tightly knit as Citrus. Of the five men who broke out of the jail Feb. 17, none was more local _ or more infamous among locals _ than Wiley.

"Everybody in law enforcement who has been here a few years knows who he is," says Inverness police Chief Bill Vitt.

Wiley ran to a familiar place

Days before Wiley's capture, the rest of the escapees were already in custody. Ronnie N. Buttram, 21, gave up three days after the escape. John Hufstetler, 44, and Jerry Hinton, 36, were found a few hours after Buttram surrendered. And Joseph A. Provost, 22, turned himself in at a Pensacola bus station last Sunday to save his brother from being charged with aiding his escape.

The Sheriff's Office had anticipated Wiley's capture to be the most difficult and take the longest.

He'd grown up in Inverness and Floral City. He'd once gone without food for four months in a prison fast. He had plenty of acquaintances. And he came from a big family, nine siblings in all, six of them with arrest records.

Worse still, of all the convicts, Wiley had the least to lose. Before his escape, he was serving a 100-year term as a habitual offender.

Although sheriff's officials suspected that Wiley may have had help while on the run, they have made no arrests. The investigation is continuing.

"Frank Wiley had the best network, the most family members. He was the oldest and most experienced (of the escapees)," said Gail Tierney, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office. "From that, no one was surprised that he was out long-term."

Law enforcement officials were equally unfazed that he was caught near the home of one of his brothers. Wiley ran where he always has: home.

When told by a reporter that Wiley had been caught, Bill Tyner, an Inverness police officer who has tangled with Wiley on several occasions, jokingly guessed the location. He was off by less than four miles.

Wiley was captured Friday a short distance from the site where the first of his four escape attempts ended in 1966, in the bedroom of a vacant house off Gobbler Drive.

"It figures," Tyner said. "He's a local boy."

Criminal ways

started early

Wiley's criminal ties to the county start way back. Much of his childhood, one of his sisters said, was spent dodging beatings and helping his two older brothers shoplift for canned hash, soup and whatever else they could lay their hands on.

"We were poor, we didn't have food," said Judy Curington, 51, the oldest of three Wiley sisters. "It was rough."

Curington said one time the family was so hungry that the two oldest boys caught a bird in a cow pond near their house and roasted it over a fire.

"It was tough, no salt, nothing, but we were hungry," Curington said.

Wiley made his first appearances in the juvenile justice system, his records now sealed by law.

His first major felony as an adult came when he tried to rob a gas station at Bevilles Corner in Sumter County in 1965. Nine years and two prison terms later, he got into an altercation with Deputy Herb Bergman that ended in a three-year prison spell.

Since 1965, Wiley has spent 12 years outside of prison, and that time was on a variety of probations, paroles and release programs. He has escaped from custody four times, including his most recent attempt.

His crimes, the majority of them committed in Inverness and Floral City, range from the petty to the serious. In 1980, he stole two boat engines, an old television and a "well-worn blue plaid flannel shirt" from a weekend trailer. His public defender at the trial was John Thurman.

Fourteen years later, Judge John Thurman sentenced his former client to life in prison as a habitual offender for beating 67-year-old Dennis Wilkins, the man who, according to police records, fenced one of the two boat engines Wiley had stolen in the 1980 robbery.

During one of his brief respites from jail, Wiley married and had a son he insisted on naming Jesse. The significance would become apparent nearly a decade later when Wiley gave his second son the middle name Cole.

Together, the three Wiley men's names echoed three of the Old West's most notorious bandits: Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger.

Kind, caring family man

The violent, capricious criminal that the police came to know all too well stood in marked contrast to the man his children and mother experienced.

Jesse Wiley, 19, has good memories of his father, although only a few. He describes him as a kind man with a sense of humor, who would make up stories about Big Foot in the Withlacoochee Forest to amuse him.

"I'm not gonna say my dad's a saint," he said. "I had to visit him at Raiford (Correctional Institute) and Cross City (Correctional Institute) and everywhere else, but he'd do anything to make me and my little brother happy."

And Annabelle Wiley, matriarch of the Wiley clan, stands staunchly by her son's side.

"Frank is an average caring, kind, understanding person," she said. "He took care of me," when sick and "made sure I got my medication."

In the end, though, the most prescient analysis of Frank Wiley may be found tucked away in the three-inch thick folder that is his probation report.

Despite a clean record for several months and a steady job, a probation officer who oversaw Wiley's case predicted only the bleakest of futures, and ended his 1988 note with the following:

"Subject has a long history of criminal activity and has obviously not learned from these past experiences."

_ Times Staff Writer Jim Ross and Greg Hamilton contributed to this report.

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