Albert Leon Fletcher of Zephyrhills doesn't like to wear leg shackles.
Fletcher, 24, angrily complained to a circuit judge Monday about wearing anything that would bind his legs during his trial this week on charges of armed burglary and grand theft.
Judge Lynn Tepper's response: "You'll wear whatever I tell you to wear."
On Wednesday, Fletcher decided the issue himself just two hours before opening statements in his trial, police say.
Fletcher, who faces the death penalty in a Polk County first-degree murder case yet to reach trial, picked the locks on his shackles and handcuffs while being transported to the county courthouse in a van about 8 a.m. Wednesday.
When an officer opened the van upon their arrival, Fletcher bolted.
Late Wednesday, he was still at large.
Tepper, forced to declare a mistrial in Fletcher's case before the court heard a single witness, later told excused jurors, "As you can see, everything that could go wrong with this case has gone wrong."
It all began with a routine drive from the county jail in Land O'Lakes in a Sheriff's Office van Wednesday morning.
During the drive to Dade City, police say Fletcher somehow picked the lock on shackles chaining together his legs and on handcuffs linking him to four other inmates in the vehicle.
When the van stopped at the courthouse and a deputy opened its back doors shortly after 8 a.m., Fletcher took off, running across U.S. 98 as an officer fired two shots to stop him.
As he ran, the shackles were still partially attached to one leg _ but his other leg was free.
Fletcher, wearing a blue jail uniform with the word "Inmate" emblazoned down one leg, stumbled after the second shot. But police, who say no blood was found at the scene, cannot confirm that he was hit.
"He could have just stumbled," said Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers.
Throughout the day and evening, deputies used dogs and a helicopter to search a 6-square-mile area centered on a small neighborhood along U.S. 98. Up to 30 officers, many toting shotguns, walked the neighborhood and surrounding woods but found no trace of Fletcher.
Harold Sample, executive assistant to Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon, said he did not think Fletcher had any family in Dade City. His wife, whose identity was not released by police, lives in Zephyrhills.
Fletcher's record dates to 1985. Police did not know if he had a record of escape attempts.
In April 1993, Fletcher was arrested with Doug Porter of Lakeland and charged by Lakeland police in the killing of Nelson Medina Oliveras, a Lakeland resident.
Porter, 25, was convicted in the killing and was sentenced to life in prison.
Fletcher, who also faces two counts of armed robbery, aggravated assault, possession of a short-barrelled shotgun and grand theft in the case, faces the death penalty in a trial scheduled to begin in March.
Both men denied pulling the trigger. But Lakeland police say Fletcher was the triggerman.
Police found several items, including weapons, that they say Fletcher had stolen in Pasco County burglaries.
In a separate trial during the summer in Dade City, Fletcher was convicted of armed burglary and several counts of grand theft and sentenced to 17 years based on evidence found by Lakeland police in April.
A second trial based on items found in April was to have begun this week.
The pending murder charge is one reason Judge Tepper refused to allow Fletcher unshackled while in court.
On Monday, when the six-person jury in the case was selected, the judge raised the possibility that a device called a "leg stiffener" could be attached to Fletcher's legs, avoiding shackles.
The device would have prevented him from bending his knees.
But Fletcher told Tepper, "I won't wear no leg stiffener."
After he continued to interrupt Tepper and argue against wearing restraints, Tepper warned him, "Mr. Fletcher, do not interrupt me. If you do, I will have you gagged and I will have you removed from the court. If you say one more thing, I'll hold you in contempt of court."
Then Tepper told Fletcher, "If you behave yourself . . . we'll get along fine."
Police say Fletcher is about 5-feet-11, 170 pounds, with brown, curly hair, blue eyes and a mustache. He also has a tattoo of a Viking on one shoulder.