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He just may be state's oldest criminal

In a state rife with well-behaved retirees and criminals who seem to get younger by the year, Wesley Honeywood defies convention.

Since 1946, Honeywood has been arrested some 25 times in three states and served seven prison terms, the last of which was a three-year hitch that ended a month ago.

By his reckoning, he is 97 years old, which, if true, would make him Florida's oldest criminal.

Unlike the majority of criminals, who are young and haven't accomplished much else except the crimes of which they are accused, Honeywood can say he has lived a long and productive life on both sides of the law.

In his life among the lawful, Honeywood was married for 54 years, fathered seven children and worked for the better part of 30 years in the Jacksonville railyards. He served in at least one world war and saw action in more than one invasion.

Reconstructing a life that has spanned a century yields intriguing bits of personal history and frustrating gaps. Strung together, there may not be enough information to explain the sudden change in Wesley Honeywood's life.

If there was a turning point, however, it probably came the day he stole the Army bomber.

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Honeywood is not tall, about 5 feet 5, but he is exceptionally trim, and it is not hard to imagine that he would have looked dapper in uniform or in a suit of church clothes. Even today, he is well turned out whether he intends to visit a government agency or spend the day at home.

He has a dusting of gray hair around the back of his head, a closely cropped mustache and a sporty patch of beard underneath his lower lip. He is polite and sociable and smiles often.

He does not drink alcohol. He does not use profanity. Neither does he look like the kind of person who would point a gun, even an unloaded one, at a neighbor and threaten to shoot him.

Around East Jacksonville, the poor and predominantly black neighborhood between downtown and the St. Johns River, people call him "Pops."

No matter what birth date one uses for Honeywood, and there are at least five in circulation, none makes him younger than 80. Most put him at, or close to, the 97 that he thinks is correct.

His memory is not entirely reliable on such matters.

Like the aroma of roasting coffee that wafts in pungent bursts across East Jacksonville from the Maxwell House plant, Honeywood's memory can come in vivid torrents of specific information, or not at all.

He can summon scenes with a novelist's attention to detail, recalling an address of a home in a city he has not seen for nearly eight decades. But his recollections of his service in the military, especially his contention that he was a major in the Army Air Forces, often are at odds with official records.

There are few records of the first part of his life and even fewer family members still alive to offer corroboration of the records that do exist. The second part of his life is detailed all too well by the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. These records are often contradictory, however, especially because Honeywood spent so many years misleading authorities.

In a few instances, what Honeywood appears to have forgotten is just as remarkable as what he appears to have made up.

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One of the biographical details about which Honeywood is most certain is that he was born on Jan. 3, 1900, in San Francisco.

"Wesley could be all of that age. His father lived to more than a hundred," says Leon Honeywood, a retired electrician living in Sacramento, Calif. Leon's father was Wesley's younger brother.

But the birthplace is all wrong, Leon says.

"I know he wasn't born in California," he says, "because at that time he didn't know where California was.

"He come from a country town. Waterproof, La.," says Leon, who was born in Louisiana in 1933. "It was just two streets, a grocery store and a mill shop."

Waterproof, like St. Joseph a little farther north along the western bank of the Mississippi River, is part of Tensas Parish. The business of Tensas Parish was farming, cotton mostly, and the Honeywoods were a farming family.

Wesley Honeywood says he had nine siblings. His mother, "Mamie," died in 1960 and his father, Gus, who might have been born in 1883, died 89, according to Social Security records. Though Wesley was the oldest child, he says, "I've outlived them all so far."

There are still a handful of Honeywoods living in Waterproof and St. Joseph, none of whom remember Wesley. Many others are scattered in Missouri, Illinois and Michigan. A few, such as Leon and his sister Leola Honeywood Wynn, have dim recollections of a rambunctious "Uncle Boll Weevil" who disappeared 50 years ago.

Having forgotten or chosen to ignore his roots in Louisiana, Wesley Honeywood begins his story out West.

"I married a Jacksonville girl I met in California. She got pregnant. She wanted to come home," Honeywood says of how he ended up in Jacksonville. "I got here on the Fourth of July, 1921. My first child was born on Dec. 26."

The couple went on to have seven children, five of whom are still living. Honeywood says his wife's name was Mamie, "same as my mother's." Records from the Department of Corrections give his wife's name as Viola Smith. She died in 1976.

"She didn't know work from the time I married her. She beared all the children for me. Her job was to stay home and take care of the children," Honeywood says.

She liked to go to the dog track occasionally, he said, a pasttime he didn't enjoy as much as playing poker or bridge. Nonetheless, they stayed married for as long as they did by avoiding arguments, he says.

"If a woman starts arguing, you don't argue," Honeywood says. "She can't argue by herself. I'd just grab my hat to go out."

How Honeywood supported his family is open to conjecture.

He tells of running a rigged numbers game in Tampa during the '20s and '30s in a place called the Nighthouse. If he did, he was good enough not to get caught.

Some of his arrest records indicate he worked in construction or as a bricklayer. Honeywood says he was a longshoreman, too. The job he held the longest (one court document says 32 years) was working for Seaboard Coast Line Railroad.

It was in the switching yard where he says a metal container fell on his hand, crushing his left middle finger. The top joint had to be removed, and many of the fingerprint samples he would later give show a stunted digit or no fingerprint at all.

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Honeywood says he served in both world wars, which is possible for someone who would have been 17 when the United States first sent troops to Europe.

"I was a ground soldier in the First World War," he said. "I was a pilot in the Second World War. I liked the second war better. I didn't have to do so much walking."

If the military's file on Honeywood is correct, then it is true that he did not have do a lot of walking in WWII. He was in the Navy.

He enlisted on Sept. 2, 1939, in Berkeley, Calif., giving his birth date as July 13, 1917. In hindsight, this may have been a ruse to make himself appear young enough to join the service a second time. Nonetheless, the military looks at that date as accurate and doesn't entertain the possibility that he may have served in WWI.

In October 1942, he put out to sea, bound for Europe on the LST-383, one of hundreds of tank transport ships built for use in WWII. Honeywood's duties were not grand. For the entirety of his military career, he was a steward's mate and a cook, a far cry from the bomber pilot that he says he was.

Confronted with the discrepancy, Honeywood sticks to his story. "No, sir," he says. "My brother was in the Navy."

There is no shame in Honeywood's combat record, however. He served on two tank transports, both of which saw heavy action in the occupation of Sicily in July 1943, the landings at Salerno later that year and the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

"Mr. Honeywood's record makes reference to the LST-360 having been hit off the coast of France on June 6, 1944," according to Clifford G. Amsler Jr., assistant director for Military Records in St. Louis. Naval records do not show that the ship sank.

Leon Honeywood heard a similar story.

"He's a very, very lucky man," Leon says. "He was presumed dead. They sent all his things back to his family. That was right at the end of the war."

Wesley Honeywood finished the war on board the destroyer USS Philadelphia. In August 1945, while Honeywood served on the Philadelphia, the ship carried President Harry Truman to the Potsdam Conference, where the Allied powers discussed the future of postwar Europe.

Honeywood may not have been a pilot, but he did have an experience flying. At the end of the war, he and another enlisted man went joyriding in an Army bomber for a few hours. The location of the journey has been given as Rome or England and maybe parts of Western Europe.

"That's capable of him," Leon Honeywood says. "He was an adventurous-type guy."

The Navy was not amused. Honeywood was discharged for bad conduct on Jan. 2, 1946, when his ship docked at the Brooklyn shipyards.

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Honeywood stopped fighting the Germans and Italians in 1945. He's been fighting the law almost ever since.

Within six weeks of leaving the service, Honeywood was charged with petty theft in Philadelphia.

Asked about his earliest arrests, he smiles pleasantly and recounts the circumstances that led to the misunderstanding by the police.

"The first time I was arrested they claimed I was forging," Honeywood says. "I wasn't forging. All the people would come to me with their checks and I'd cash them for them."

There was apparently some disagreement about whether it was appropriate for Honeywood to keep the money.

"There was a few (arrests) after that," he says.

Over the next 51 years, Honeywood was arrested 24 more times in towns such as West Palm Beach, Belle Glade, Orlando and Tampa, as well as Baltimore and Salisbury, Md. In the first three decades, the charges were almost evenly split between breaking and entering and check forgery.

Police listed him as 65 years old after they caught him early one morning shinnying down the drain pipe of a downtown Tampa office building. He ran, but the officer caught him. Honeywood denied he had entered the building to break into safes, but his accomplice gave evidence for the state and Honeywood was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The first arrest on a charge of violence doesn't appear until November 1980, and that charge was dropped. Five years later, a battery charge was dropped also, as was an aggravated battery charge in April 1989 when he shot a man in the back who had broken into his home.

The most serious allegation came in June 1992, when he was charged with capital sexual battery on a 7-year-old girl. Honeywood said that he was physically incapable of doing what the girl said he did and that the mother was seeking revenge on him because he wouldn't support her crack cocaine habit. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted sexual battery and was placed on probation.

"He wasn't a bad man," says his former neighbor, Tony "Shug" Magel, 19. "They just like to taunt him. They knew he'd go off. They'd say: "Hey, Pops,' and he'd say, "Don't call me no Pops.' He wasn't all there."

The incident that led to Honeywood's most recent prison sentence sounds odd enough to make one wonder if there isn't some truth to Magel's lay diagnosis.

In 1994, a neighbor looked into his back yard and saw Honeywood eating some of his grapes. He told Honeywood not to eat the grapes because they had just been sprayed with pesticide. Then, the neighbor said, Honeywood pulled a gun from the back of his pants and said, "If you don't go back in the house, I'll blow your brains out."

The gun was not loaded, but the threat and simply possessing a weapon were violations of his probation. A psychiatric examination revealed that Honeywood had "a mixed character disorder," meaning that his anti-social behavior was not caused by one specific disorder. In the doctor's opinion, however, Honeywood was competent to stand trial.

That cleared the way for a Jacksonville prosecutor to ask the judge to designate Honeywood as a habitual offender, all but guaranteeing that he would go to prison. Honeywood said he considered this preferable to going to a nursing home.

"If I go to jail, I may be out in a couple of years," he said at the time. "If I go to a nursing home, I may be there the rest of my life."

He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released in early October. Now he is the state's oldest person on house arrest.

While he was in prison, there was a fire at his rental home on Union Street, and he could not move back there. He had no family to depend on.

"I had a wife before I went to prison, but I don't know where she is now," Honeywood says, referring to a younger woman who lived with him on Union Street. He says he has lost touch with the five children he thinkss are still alive.

That is how he came to be staying at Annie Lee Bean's home a couple of blocks away on Franklin Street. Bean says she knew Honeywood from the neighborhood, but she is not a close friend.

When she picked him up at the Greyhound station, she says she did not know he was on house arrest and that he would be staying with her.

"Otherwise I wouldn't have had him here," she says. "He don't have anything. That's why I got stuck with him."

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Three years ago, a newspaper story about Honeywood's impending prison term was headlined this way: "94-year-old career criminal's next sentence likely to be life."

At the time, the judge expressed the fear that any prison sentence, no matter how short, would amount to a life sentence given Honeywood's age. And a life sentence simply was not appropriate punishment for the crime.

Honeywood had no doubt he could do the sentence, especially after they gave him a heart bypass in prison.

"They took a vein out of my leg and put it in my chest," he says. Perhaps he needed the operation because he has smoked a pack of Pall Malls every day for 77 years. Even so, he doesn't plan to stop.

"They ain't did me no harm," Honeywood says. "Look like it did me some good, keep me living this long."

Early in October, shortly after he met his new probation officer, Honeywood sat on the steps of Annie Lee Bean's home and talked about his plans. He smoked a Pall Mall, and the smell of the cigarette mingled with the roasting coffee from the Maxwell House factory. He said he wanted to have his probation, which is to elapse on Oct. 2, 2001, transferred to California.

Why?

"That's where I was born and raised. I want to get back home."

That trip may have to wait.

As of Friday evening, Honeywood's probation officer, Mark Wild, had not seen him since Saturday. Annie Bean didn't know where he was either. When viewed in combination with his refusal to make weekly visits to Wild's office, the outlook for Honeywood's continued freedom was grim.

"If I don't find him by tomorrow," Wild said Friday evening, "there'll be a warrant out for him first thing Monday morning."

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report. Information from the Florida Times-Union was also used.

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