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Long arm of law snags fugitive in Tennessee

Denise Walker stopped by the Jiffy 7 Till 11 convenience store in Athens, Tenn., almost daily and spoke to the friendly woman working the cash register.

Walker didn't know the woman, Dorothy June Butterfield, had been on the lam for nearly six years from Pasco County. Butterfield didn't know Walker was a clerk for the local sheriff's warrants division.

Walker recently became the wiser.

On Feb. 1, her law enforcement colleagues arrested the store clerk, who had skipped town instead of facing charges stemming from a 1997 car crash in Shady Hills.

For someone running from the law, the warrants clerk mused, Butterfield was living pretty much out in the open.

"She couldn't have been hiding out where she was working," Walker said. "Everybody and their brother goes in there. There's police in there all the time, in uniform."

And even when it looked like Butterfield's number was up, she still almost got away.

Butterfield, who turned 28 last week, had been in Tennessee for at least a couple years.

She lived with her husband, Dennis Ray Hall, and young son in a rented home. She worked as an assistant manager at the Jiffy. She didn't cause any trouble.

Basically, she lived the kind of life friends said she had before June 23, 1997.

Butterfield "was the good one in her family," said Shena Walker, a classmate from Land O'Lakes High. "She was never a fighter. She wasn't a druggie. Everybody, jocks, rednecks, freaks, they all liked her."

Then came the cursed summer night.

Butterfield, then 19, went to a neighborhood party where lots of people were drinking. Shena Walker said she tried to get Butterfield to take shots of Jack Daniels that night but Butterfield said she only liked Goldschlager.

Just before 3 a.m., the partiers decided to go joy riding.

As many as nine or 10 people piled into a light blue Jeep, witnesses said. Butterfield got behind the wheel and drove a couple blocks to Minneola Drive. The music blared and the passengers hollered as she steered the four-seater over the road's sugar sand hills. She was going 25 mph, maybe 30.

"Spin around this corner!" they yelled, as recounted by Walker in court records. "Spin around this corner!"

"No," Butterfield said. "There's too much weight."

Then the Jeep swerved out of control, passengers said. It slid, then flipped. Bodies flew through the windows.

One woman, a young mother named Gwendolyn Miles, lay on the ground, crushed and lifeless. Walker blacked out.

When she came to, the Jeep and Butterfield were gone.

Around 8 a.m. the same day, Florida Highway Patrol officers arrested Butterfield at her mother's house. The charges: vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident involving death and driving without a license.

For the next three years, she attended her pretrial hearings. After she rejected a plea offer, her case seemed headed for trial.

Then Butterfield pulled another disappearing act. Expected in court for a hearing on Oct. 26, 2000, Butterfield never showed.

The court issued a warrant for her arrest.

With 34,000 outstanding warrants in Pasco County, the Sheriff's Office puts an emphasis on defendants who A) have the most serious crimes, and B) they can find.

Even spokesman Kevin Doll had to laugh about Butterfield going MIA for so long.

"Apparently," he said, "she's been hiding in plain sight."

That changed when an informant tipped the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to Butterfield's whereabouts.

Agents met Butterfield as she returned home with her son. They took her into custody and sent the school-aged boy with child welfare workers, said bureau spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson.

When Butterfield's husband showed up, agents also arrested him. Hall, whom Butterfield married in Pasco on Dec. 29, 1998, was wanted in Hillsborough County for failing to report to his probation officer.

Hall was extradited. The same was planned for Butterfield.

But somehow, Doll said, wires got crossed. The Pasco Sheriff's Office mistakenly told the McMinn County, Tenn., jail it would not extradite after all. With no other reason to hold her, the jail let Butterfield go.

Pasco authorities quickly realized their error and asked McMinn County deputies to re-arrest Butterfield.

It was too late. Butterfield had left town.

This time, Butterfield ran home. On Feb. 13, she turned herself in at her mother's home in Shady Hills, not far from the site of the accident.

She answered the phone at her mother's home two days later, having been released from jail on bond. Asked what she had been doing during her time away, she offered a brief explanation.

"Raising my son," she said. "That's the only reason why I ran."

The decision could add extra time to her sentence. She faces more than 40 years in prison, Assistant State Attorney Mary Handsel said.

Minneola Drive looks like the kind of place people go when they don't want to be found. Most of the run-down mobile homes don't bear street numbers. The pavement gives way to potholes as Vance Drive curves past a row of 62 country mailboxes and spills into Minneola. Any real tire speed kicks up dust tornadoes.

Esther Shultz still lives on the bumpy road, directly across the street from the spot where her twin daughters, Shena and Joanna Walker, were among the six passengers years ago.

Her daughters are fine. They feel no animosity toward Butterfield. In fact, they said they would testify on her behalf.

"She wanted to face it all," Shena Walker said, "but she did not want to leave her son."

"It was just a freak accident," Shultz said. "We hope nothing happens to her.

Colleen Jenkins covers courts in west Pasco County. She can be reached at (727) 869-6236 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

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