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Escapee was "running for his life'

In the days before Michael Fitzgerald's escape Saturday from a Panhandle prison, he wrote his family in St. Petersburg that he was the target of a prison gang. He sent instructions for his funeral.

Now, he may be "running for his life," said his grandmother, Jean Fitzgerald.

Michael Fitzgerald, a burglar, and Citrus County murderer David Duquette escaped at daybreak Saturday and remained free late Sunday. A manhunt continued in at least three states.

Duquette, 25, and Fitzgerald, 27, disappeared before a 7:30 a.m. head count at the Apalachee Correctional Institution in Sneads, a town close to the Georgia and Alabama borders.

The inmates may have scaled a fence, said investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They have not been seen since 1 p.m. Saturday, when witnesses saw them at a truck stop 20 miles west along Interstate 10. How they got there is unknown, but they were wearing some clothing that was not part of their prison issue uniforms.

Duquette was serving 35 years for the 2001 strangulation of a Citrus County teenager.

Fitzgerald was sent to prison in 2001. He had been moved to the 1,300-prisoner facility in recent months.

Days before his escape, Fitzgerald wrote that he was recently beaten by prisoners over his radio, Jean Fitzgerald said.

His letter included instructions for him to be cremated with his ashes placed in the same urn as his mother's, who committed suicide in 2004.

"I'm not sure what's in store for me. I can't do the time I have," Fitzgerald wrote, saying jail guards would not stop the beatings. "Thing is that more than likely I'll either catch more time for defending myself or get killed before it's all over with. It's just not right."

The letter did not say he was intending to escape, Jean Fitzgerald said.

FDLE investigators met with his family Saturday and reviewed the letter.

Jean Fitzgerald said her only grandson's crime was breaking into a house through a kitchen window, stealing money and a bottle of alcohol. He talks with a stutter and was neglected by his mother, she said.

Jean Fitzgerald and her husband, Billy, cared for Michael much of his life.

"He's not a hardened criminal," said Jean Fitzgerald, 74.

His stepfather, Gary Muchmore, said they had not heard from him since he escaped from prison. They will turn him in if they do, Muchmore said.

"We do not condone Michael's decision to escape. He was in the process of obtaining a retrial for the allegations that landed him in prison in the first place and this escape attempt will no doubt be hurtful to his record," Muchmore said. "However, Michael is literally running for his life, as the words in his letter clearly state.

"Michael, we love you and we want you to turn yourself in," Muchmore said. "We are concerned for your safety. Please, give us the chance to help you and expose the truth. Give your family an opportunity to fight this together."

Duquette's family had nothing to say publicly Sunday.

Agents from the Brooksville office of the FDLE spoke with Duquette's mother, Alma, at her home in central Citrus County on Saturday.

"I have no comment," Alma Duquette told the Times on Sunday.

The FDLE agents also spoke with several of Alma Duquette's neighbors on Saturday and showed them photos of Duquette and Fitzgerald.

"We haven't seen him and don't hope to," said neighbor Judy Bills. "But the FDLE agents came by Saturday and showed us the pictures and left us their business cards."

FDLE agents also spoke with Kathleen Howes, the mother of Duquette's victim, Linda Howes, said a spokeswoman for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

Kathleen Howes moved out of the Inverness house she was living in when her daughter was murdered. She still lives in east Citrus County.

Duquette confessed to murdering 19-year-old Linda Howes, a popular former Citrus High School student who disappeared after attending a party in August 2001. Duquette told investigators he choked Howes while the two were having consensual sex.

Duquette said he was using LSD at the time and began hurting Howes after he hallucinated and saw the face of a man who harmed his sister.

"I just started choking her and before I knew it . . . there was no more movement," Duquette said in a statement.

The FDLE said Sunday that investigators have no leads where the two escapees may be headed or whether they are still together.

"With every minute that passes, they can be changing their appearance, changing their mode of travel," said Phil Kiracofe, an FDLE spokesman.

The number of inmates escaping from Florida prisons has dropped significantly in the past 12 years, according to state Department of Corrections statistics.

From July 1993 through June 1994, 56 prisoners escaped from state prison facilities. That number fell to just eight in the 2004-05 fiscal year. The eight escapees were all recaptured, five of them within 24 hours.

There have been no escapes in the Florida prison system since July and none at Apalachee since at least 1996.