For nearly 20 years, Florida man wanted on child molestation charges could have been found

Published Dec. 30, 2012

LARGO — In the early morning of Sept. 29, a Polk County sheriff's deputy stopped a red Mercury van with an expired tag.

The driver said his name was Peter Jackson and showed his license, which was suspended. He was taken to jail, where a fingerprint check revealed he wasn't who he claimed to be.

His real name was Terry Rugg. He was a wanted man in Pinellas County, where a warrant had been issued in 1993 charging him with molesting two teen boys.

Rugg, 50, had been a fugitive for almost two decades. But over the years, there had been opportunities for authorities to arrest him on the warrant.

He was arrested in New Jersey in 1994, but Pinellas prosecutors declined to have him extradited to Florida.

He also crossed paths with law enforcement in Florida several times while using the Peter Jackson alias, but authorities repeatedly failed to uncover his true identity.

Perhaps most troubling, though, is that for much of the time Rugg was a fugitive, no one was looking for him — even though he was living with his parents in Lakeland and would have been easy to find.

No one seems to have a good answer for why.

Rugg's years on the lam may doom the molestation case against him. He is trying to get the charges dismissed because of the statute of limitations, and prosecutors acknowledge he may have a good case.

• • •

On Jan. 4, 1993, a woman called the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to report that her 14-year-old son had been molested while living as a runaway.

The boy had stayed in Largo with Rugg, whom he met through friends. Rugg, then 30, gave alcohol and marijuana to the teens, the boy said. Once, while the boy slept, Rugg performed a sex act on him.

Detectives later interviewed the boy. When the act was committed, the boy said, he asked what Rugg was doing.

"I do this to all my friends," Rugg told him, according to a sheriff's report.

Detectives also talked to the boy's friends, who said they were aware of what had happened. During an interview, another boy also claimed to have been touched inappropriately by Rugg multiple times, the report states.

Detectives phoned Rugg, who agreed to meet with them. But later he called and canceled, the report said. Detectives visited his home, but he wasn't there. They talked to people who knew him, but no one knew where he was.

On May 27, 1993, a warrant was issued for Rugg's arrest on two counts of handling and fondling a child under 16.

It wasn't the first time Rugg had been accused of molesting kids.

Six years earlier, he had been sentenced to probation in Sarasota County on a child sex abuse charge.

• • •

After the warrant was issued in 1993, the Sheriff's Office caught a lucky break: Authorities in New Jersey called to say Rugg had been arrested on a marijuana trafficking charge.

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While in custody, Rugg had told police that he liked picking up young men, according to a sheriff's report.

New Jersey state police asked Pinellas authorities if they wanted Rugg extradited.

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, declined.

Asked about the case recently, Bartlett said he does not recall why he made that decision.

"Generally, on this kind of a case, I would say bring him back," Bartlett said. "There is an indication in the file that (the victims) weren't really that aggressive about wanting to prosecute."

Bartlett, who reviews up to 15 extradition cases a week, said if victims or witnesses are unreliable or uncooperative, it makes him less inclined to have someone extradited.

The warrant remained active, however, so Rugg risked getting caught if he returned to Florida.

He came back anyway.

• • •

Sometime between 1994 and 2000, Rugg moved in with his parents in Lakeland and took the Peter Jackson alias. Had someone looked, he wouldn't have been hard to find.

But no one was looking.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he regrets that.

"One of the things that's high on my list to do is look at what we have done with warrants," Gualtieri said. "There should be some tracking of these serious crimes."

In 1993, long before Gualtieri became sheriff, there was no electronic tracking of warrants, he said. And there was little effort to find people whose trails ran cold. That made for a backlog of thousands of warrants that the Sheriff's Office does not have the time or resources to try to clear.

"Does it have to be that way? No," Gualtieri said. "For the ones that are serious crimes, there should be some effort."

• • •

Before his arrest this year, Rugg had contact with law enforcement in Polk County several times, records show.

Twice in 2011, he was pulled over for traffic violations. The year before, he was charged with writing a bad check at Publix.

None of those cases resulted in a trip to jail, so his fingerprints were not checked in a state database.

But before that, Rugg was jailed in 2000 and in 2002 on drug charges. In both cases, Polk County deputies ran his fingerprints through the database.

Rugg's fingerprints should have been in that system and should have tipped off deputies that Peter Jackson was Terry Rugg and that he was a wanted man.

No one knows why that didn't happen.

After a Tampa Bay Times reporter inquired, Pinellas sheriff's officials researched Rugg's warrant history in the Florida Crime Information Center database. Documentation they found showed the warrant was in the system almost the entire time Rugg was on the run.

But when Polk officials researched the same thing, their records showed the warrant did not appear in the system until April 2009.

Curiously, Pinellas officials found notes indicating the warrant was briefly removed from the system in April 2009, then re-entered a few hours later. It's unclear if that's what helped Polk deputies' finally unmask Peter Jackson's true identity after he was arrested in September.

"It very well could have been a technical glitch," said Polk County sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Wood. "Why it didn't show up (before that), we don't know."

• • •

Despite a 20-year run as a fugitive, Rugg was granted $25,000 bail and got out of jail.

He's not trying to repeat his success on the lam. He showed up for a recent court hearing and seemed confident that the case would be dismissed. Attorneys are researching if the statute of limitations has expired.

"It was a long time ago," Rugg told a reporter as he exited the courtroom. "S--- happens in life."

Strolling out of the courthouse, he spoke softly about working construction jobs to care for his parents. One man refused to hire him after the allegations resurfaced, he said.

"I don't have this one coming," Rugg said. "Absolutely I have done things in my past that I am not proud of. … I'm no angel, but I don't deserve this one.

"I didn't molest those kids."

He blames authorities for not pursuing him.

"They knew where I was," he said. "They knew how to find me."

He declined to explain why he continued to use an alias. Once the case is resolved, he said, he will tell the whole story.

In the courthouse parking lot, a young man smoking a cigarette sat in the driver's seat of Rugg's red Mercury van, its engine idling.

Rugg got in and they drove off.

Times news researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or