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Fugitive is on trial years after escape

Published Oct. 7, 2005

Thomas Geers, an Ohio man arrested a decade ago with Pinellas County drug smuggler Joseph F. Valverde III, faces trial Monday in north Florida.

Geers was arrested in Alaska in November 1991, almost five years after he and Valverde escaped from the Madison County Jail. The two men were first arrested near the small town of Lee on Dec. 28, 1984, when they landed a small plane filled with 3,000 pounds of marijuana.

A Bible rested on the dashboard of the airplane. It was all part of the front Valverde used in north Florida, where he conducted prayer meetings and told people they were creating a religious retreat on the 250-acre farm that he and his wife, Lee Knight Moffett, bought in 1981.

Valverde and Geers escaped together while awaiting trial a few months after their arrest, walking out of a cell after stuffing pillows under their blankets.

Valverde didn't stay out of trouble long. He was arrested again in March 1986 after he landed a cargo plane loaded with 3,300 pounds of marijuana at a Little Rock airport. He is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence and is not listed as a witness at Geers' trial.

At the time of his arrest, Geers was one of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's most wanted fugitives. He faces trial on charges of conspiracy and trafficking in more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana and could be sentenced to 30 years in prison. Separate escape charges are pending.

Valverde lived in Pasco County for several years. His name first appeared in headlines when former U.S. Rep. Richard Kelly identified him as one of the suspicious people he was investigating when he pocketed $25,000 from undercover FBI agents in the Abscam investigation.

Valverde and a former Kelly aide, James P. Maher, were close friends and had established a wine-importing business in Argentina shortly before Valverde was arrested on cocaine charges by New York authorities.

Valverde refused to testify before the Abscam grand jury that indicted Kelly, and the popular congressman was later convicted of accepting a bribe.

A few years later, Valverde was released from federal prison and turned up helping Jim Gillum gain election as Pasco County sheriff.

Gillum, a former Tampa police sergeant, said he knew nothing of Valverde's criminal record when he accepted support from the couple. The relationship between Gillum and Valverde led to an extensive investigation by prosecutors, but no one was charged with a crime.

Valverde's wife, Lee Moffett, dropped out of sight shortly after Valverde escaped from jail. Before Valverde's arrest, the couple lived in a waterfront house just north of Clearwater, demonstrating a fondness for $400 dinners, opulent parties and trips to Europe. They paid for houses, boats, cars, furniture, airplanes and other items in cash, much of it in $10 and $20 bills.

And they frequently gave money to religious groups in the Tampa Bay area.