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Escapee's 35-year secret exposed

In the more than 35 years since Joel Lee Saye moved to Jacksonville, he's lived, by all accounts, a quiet, productive life. He met his wife here, raised two children and worked as a short-haul truck driver.

But until last week, his wife, children and grandchildren had never heard of Joel Saye. They knew their husband, father and grandfather as Allen Lawrence.

They found out Thursday that Allen Lawrence was an alias _ the name Joel Lee Saye chose after escaping from a North Carolina prison in 1967 while serving a 20-year sentence for burglary and assault with intent to commit rape.

Saye, 64, was arrested after an anonymous call to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. He waived extradition Monday and is waiting for North Carolina authorities to decide whether he should go back to prison.

In a telephone call from the Duval County Jail to the Florida Times-Union, Saye said he was wrongfully convicted.

"I didn't rape nobody," he said.

Saye claimed he came home one night, after he had been drinking, and decided to make coffee. He said he went to a neighbor's house to ask for sugar. "I staggered in and fell on her. She thought I was going to attack her. I tried to quiet the lady down: "Please, please. Why are you yelling?' "

He said he was later told he cut the woman with a knife. He said he was too drunk to remember all the facts.

A judge sentenced him to 20 years, and he began serving his sentence in February 1962.

"One day, I said, "I can't take this anymore.' "

Saye escaped from the Catawba Prison in November 1967, got a Social Security card and caught a bus to Florida.

"I never told anyone that I had escaped," Saye said _ including his wife. "It really hurt when she did find out."

Nell Lawrence learned of her husband's past when a television reporter showed up at their home the day he was arrested.

Mrs. Lawrence fought tears as she sat on her porch Tuesday and talked about her husband. She said she stands behind him.

"I've had 36 wonderful years," she said. "I wouldn't change a thing. People say he would be out by now if he hadn't escaped, but if he hadn't escaped I'd never have met him."

She said her husband "has never been in any kind of trouble. No problems; his employers all loved him. They said, "One day you'll be out and you'll have a job.' "

Saye said he is relieved his past came out, even if he winds up in prison.

"I would just like one more chance to have a few more years," he said. "I'm not a young man."

_ Information from the Florida Times-Union was used in this report.