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Two men chart two paths to lives of crime // MEAGHER'S STORY

At first, William Meagher held hostages and forced the shutdown of South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines. Later, all he demanded was amphetamines: "I want them and am going to get them or people are going to die."

That was in 1968. Meagher, now of Orange Park, was 22.

A former patient at the hospital, Meagher had bounded into the maximum-security wing early that December morning and taken three workers hostage. He shot at some medicine cabinets with a sawed-off shotgun and a pistol, and he pistol-whipped a man.

No one was seriously injured, though Meagher forced all three workers to take Thorazine, as he had been forced to do when he was a patient.

That day, only two people believed in Meagher _ a reporter from the Miami Herald and a doctor. They went inside and escorted Meagher into a parking lot, where a different doctor fed Meagher the orange juice and drugs he had been promised.

Meagher was duped _ the amphetamines were tranquilizers. Though groggy, Meagher told reporter Rod Gibson after the five-hour standoff: "I didn't want to hurt anyone, and I didn't."

It is a familiar refrain.

Since he was 9, Meagher has bounced from mental institutions to state and federal prisons. Over and over, officials worried about how Meagher would handle re-entering society.

Despite the instability in his life, Meagher is a patterned man. While his paranoid mind fluctuates, Meagher relies on old habits to commit armed robbery after armed robbery.

Each time, he carries handguns with him. He threatens to kill for what he wants, be it money, drugs or attention. And each time, whether it is holding hostages 28 years ago or shooting at officers, as authorities say he did last week, Meagher apologizes profusely, saying he didn't want to hurt anyone.

"I wasn't a mean person," a tearful Meagher said Wednesday during an interview at the Citrus County Jail. "What I have been subjected to has made me dangerous. I may not have turned out like this if I had gotten the help as a kid when I needed it."

He emerges from every situation with more pain. And more apologies and excuses for another mistake.

Meagher's arrest record in Florida dates to 1963 and is littered with property crimes, some violent. Most of his real troubles began as a teenager, though the symptoms likely showed sooner.

Meagher, who grew up in Miami, said bipolar disorder runs in his family, although it took years for doctors to diagnose his condition. He also suffers from manic depression. About eight prescriptions are supposed to keep him mentally stable.

The only family he has left is two sisters, who until recently he hadn't seen in eight years. He has been quite alone for some time.

"I don't care what happens to me," he said last week. "When you've got a mental problem, some days it just gets out of control."

Meagher has attempted suicide _ twice by slitting his throat, eight times by slicing his arms. None of the attempts have harmed Meagher's three visible tattoos _ two of roses, one of a woman.

In the late 1960s, Vietnam was not good for Meagher. Like other soldiers, he was a kid who drank and took drugs to calm his fears. He said last week that when he returned from Vietnam he became afflicted with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He returned from the war in 1967. After Meagher ran into trouble with the law in Florida, a judge placed him in his brother's custody in California and he was ordered to live in a mental hospital there.

The Herald learned that Meagher never went to the maximum-security facility as ordered, but instead was an outpatient at a clinic for the educationally handicapped. After learning of that, Florida prosecutors filed charges against Meagher and sought to have him returned to the state.

But Meagher was found mentally incompetent in a California court. He was confined to a minimum-security hospital, where doctors said they had hope for him, despite his criminal record in Florida.

The Florida prosecutors dropped their case because Meagher was in a hospital, as they had wanted. California doctors didn't think Meagher was dangerous, so they allowed him to work in the hospital's television studio.

During an interview with Herald reporter Gibson, Meagher said: "I am going to make it. I am being treated as a person out here, not some kind of an animal.

". . . I have been in just about all of Florida's institutions including Raiford Prison since I was 9. I don't expect to go anywhere and break the law. All I want is a chance to mind my own business and lead a normal life."

He was discharged a few weeks later, and returned to Florida.

He rebuilt his friendship with Gibson, whose daughter often sat on Meagher's lap during barbecues. Gibson said the men would drink beers and grill steaks together.

The first person Meagher called at 5:30 a.m. Dec. 15, 1968 _ the morning of the hospital standoff _ was Gibson.

When Gibson and the doctor, Arlene Krull, entered, Meagher quickly gave up his weapons, unloading them first. They said they trusted Meagher because he had never lied to them and had promised he did not want to hurt anyone.

After the five-hour crisis, Meagher's former doctors described him as a sociopath, one who is not psychotic but has behavioral problems.

In June 1969, a clerical error led to Meagher's early release from Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, where he was sent after a judge declared him incompetent to assist in his defense in the hostage case.

The judge, Robert Tyson, had decided that Meagher had not known the difference between right and wrong. Meagher slashed his wrist while standing in the courtroom. Hospital officials called him mentally competent but dangerous.

Meagher found trouble before officials could find him.

He robbed a U.S. post office in Miami less than one month after his mistaken release from Chattahoochee, the Herald reported. Brandishing a chrome-plated revolver, Meagher operated in his usual style. The Herald reported that he handed an employee a handwritten note reading: "This is a holdup. Don't make any noise. Don't try to be a hero."

Several weeks later, he was captured. In mid-August 1969, he entered the Dade County Jail.

Meagher posted bond on Sept. 25. When a judge found out, he ordered authorities to pick up Meagher and return him to jail. Doctors said Meagher was sane, so he was held only until mid-October.

In 1971, he was found not guilty in connection with the hostage situation. The reason? He was insane at the time of the incident, a judge said.

"You can't treat a man like an animal . . . and put him back out and expect him to act like a human being," Meagher said last week. "They're part of the problem. We're not born into that. We become that."

A slender man, later identified as Meagher, walked into the Northside Bank of Jacksonville on Main Street on Oct. 24, 1973, about noon. Quietly, without any customers or other employees noticing, Meagher handed a teller a note saying he had a gun and was demanding money.

He walked out with a bag containing $3,000, in various denominations. He didn't speak once. He never showed a weapon.

Meagher was captured two weeks later in Miami, his hometown, on a tip to the FBI, the Florida Times-Union reported. He was sentenced in 1975 to 15 years in the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. He was granted parole in April 1977 with the special condition that he live in a halfway house for counseling and treatment of his alcohol problem.

He escaped the halfway house shortly after arriving. He returned to federal prison. He was granted parole in November 1978.

Again a patient at the South Florida State Hospital, Meagher set fire to a social worker in May 1981 during an angry discussion about whether the hospital owed Meagher money for his work.

The worker suffered second- and third-degree burns in the incident, which occurred after the argument escalated. Meagher started yelling obscenities, prompting the worker to walk away.

Meagher threw a flammable liquid at the man followed by a match, setting ablaze his neck, back and head. Meagher was charged with aggravated battery.

In April 1982, Meagher was convicted of robbery with a firearm and sentenced to 20 years in a state prison.

Because of gain time, he was released Dec. 22, 1988, and sent to Dade County to answer more charges there.

"He got almost 20 days a month (for gain time)," said Marnette Collins, an assistant in the Department of Corrections. "That can really reduce a sentence."

As soon as Meagher was released from state custody, federal marshals placed him in a federal prison in Memphis. The robbery conviction had constituted a violation of his parole in the '73 bank robbery case. A parole board refused to release Meagher early ever again.

"We decided he wasn't appropriate for the community," said Tom Kowalski, director of case operations for the U.S. Parole Commission. "But the law says we can only hold him for so long. He has some responsibility for his actions. We can't follow him around with a stick. It's just a sad case."

Meagher's federal prison term expired April 3. Meagher was to be supervised by a Jacksonville parole officer until June 20, 1998, and was required to stay away from drugs and alcohol and pay for counseling.

"He had to be released because of whatever he earned in good credit," Kowalski said. "He earns credit for simply being in prison. He still owes the U.S. government until 1998."

After he was released from federal prison, Meagher moved to Orange Park and said he wanted to clean up his act.

Meagher planned carefully for his trip to visit friend Roger Mullaly in Citrus last week. He called and wrote his federal parole officer.

"This is the first time I thought I had things together," he said. "I haven't been in any trouble."

But Meagher had not been completely stable. Doctors at a Clay County mental health facility had been adjusting his medications to try to restore balance.

The changes had left Meagher in emotional turmoil. He was considering suicide, and he had been unsuccessful so many times before. He packed two handguns and plenty of ammunition for his trip to Citrus.

Meagher said he didn't know why he snapped Tuesday night. He said he carried a gun in a small pouch when he went to Publix that night but did not want to use it.

He told three employees: "I've got a gun in this bag. I'm not going to hurt you. Just do what I say."

Apparently he didn't need the money. Meagher has a checkbook and an ATM card for a bank account with plenty of savings. He has housing assistance and very few expenses.

Now he feels sorry _ again _ for what he has done.

"I didn't want to get him (Mullaly) in trouble," Meagher said. "He's got a good family. I don't want him to suffer for what I've done. He's tried to help me over the years."

Meagher was depressed even before he landed behind bars again. He fears losing control. And Meagher can't bear to think that he has really ruined his life this time.

"I don't want to be locked up again," he said. "I've been locked up all my life."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Information from the Miami Herald and the Florida Times-Union also was used.