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June 17, 2024

The Escape

By Darren Sapp

That’s the moment I knew my plan would work. That braggart, Clint Baker, told his underling that in less than a week, he and his wife planned to leave on a week-long cruise out of Galveston. They had no kids, no dogs, no nothing that would remain in an empty house for a whole week. For seven long years, I had waited for an opportunity like that. I needed something to defeat the dogs and the roadblocks. I couldn’t find justice on the outside, playing to the man, so I had to take matters in my own hands. I had to escape. Just like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. We all loved how Dufresne made it out and got back at that evil warden. I’d use Clint Baker to win my freedom.

I wore a white uniform as most prisoners in Texas did. Something like scrubs that doctors and nurses wear and everyone living near a Texas prison knew that men in all white were prisoners. Scum. The shunned. They’d mostly see them from afar, milling about a prison yard through two layers of fencing. However, certain trusted prisoners worked outside the walls performing service for the community. No one in their right mind would let me work as a trustee. Clint Baker had other ideas.

Many years back, well before I entered his employ, he had wiped sweat from his brow after mowing his lawn under a blazing Texas sun. A triple-digit day. So, he hired a landscaping crew but balked at the first bill. After all, prison guards didn’t exactly bring in the big bucks. His wife, however, worked as a nurse in the local hospital and provided a much more ample income for them including great health insurance and a generous 401k plan. That always irked ol’ Clint so he developed a scheme to take care of his lawn and pull in some extra cash.

He had watched many a prisoner push a mower or walk a grass trimmer for government property but what if he could use those prisoners to cut the lawns of his neighbors? The prison allowed certain prisoners to work outside the prison walls as trustees, that is, those who had committed less serious crimes and those that had modeled good behavior. Or how about the rich folks on the side of town who pretended that no prison existed near them because it hurt their economy by scaring off business? Baker decided he’d procure some green scrubs, the color most healthcare staff had rejected but the perfect color for a landscaping crew. It also would prevent the average townsfolk from fearing men in white walking about their property. He only had one hurdle to overcome—the kickback amount due to the warden who had packed away a huge nest egg from other illegal schemes run by other entrepreneurial guards. Baker started low, ten percent. The warden countered at forty percent but they settled on a third.

Baker ran his landscaping crews during the day and worked the second shift at the prison but slept half the time. He paid off the other guards to cover for him. Prisoners begged to work on his crew because it got them outside the prison walls and a fast food meal for lunch. I had tried a few times to get on the crew but Baker turned me down, flat. I had spent my first two years in prison working the fields while a guard on horseback, shotgun at the ready, watched my every move. The next five, I earned an indoors job making highway signs for the State of Texas.

My cellmate came in one evening bragging about the burger, fries, and soda he downed for lunch. He reminded me how Guard Baker collected them each morning, had them change from white to green, and drove them from one house to another and one business to another to mow, edge, and trim. On a given day, they might cut the lawn for the local first national bank, the banker’s home lawn, and the church lawn where the banker worshiped every Sunday. The customers loved the low landscaping prices. Clint Baker happily paid his third to the warden and pocketed the rest aside from a little overhead for landscaping equipment, gas, and lunch for the crew.

“Baker’s pretty upset with us,” my cellmate said. “Seems the equipment keeps breaking down and we can’t mow as much. Blames us.”

That was my in.

I began to whisper as if I had top secret info. “Hey, listen. I can fix all that stuff. My old man ran an auto repair shop and people brought their mowers in all the time. Weed Eaters too. I worked there and fixed that stuff all the time.”

My cellmate laughed. “Yeah, right, like you could be a trustee.”

“Just ask him. Not like he can’t bend a few rules.”

The next evening, Clint Baker paid me a visit and quizzed me on my repair abilities. I could tell he didn’t really know what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter, because I knew my stuff. Then came the speech.

“You better keep your nose clean.” He snarled and leaned in with his hand on his baton. “One screwup and I’ll bury you under this prison.”

I matched him in height and weight and had no fear of him, but acted as if I did. “Yes, sir, no problem. You can trust me.” I had to give him the win. Anything to get on the crew.

Two years later, I not only kept his equipment running, but some of the locals dropped off their mowers, and I worked out of the back of the truck fixing them, earning him more cash. Always cash. One time some lady tried to write him a check, and he demanded she hit the ATM before she got her mower back. I had seen him take cash many times. I got to know his house pretty well because he had me fix leaky pipes and touch up the walls. Typical honey-do stuff. Whenever we came to his house, he went straight back to his master bedroom.

One time, he had me working in his master bathroom on a little paint job. I heard him answer the door expecting a mower pickup that we brought back to his house. He must’ve forgotten about me and walked right into his master bedroom closet. I froze.

Should I clear my throat? Remind him I’m here? I stayed quiet. I barely breathed.

He slid over a big box and pulled back the carpet. Then he pulled up a square piece of wood and lifted out a metal box. He retrieved the cash from his pocket and dropped it in. His house stood on pier and beam so he must have constructed a little hidden compartment.

That’s it. That’s where he keeps his money. Might be thousands in there, I thought.

I never considered escaping early on. I figured life had dealt me some sorry cards, and I sure didn’t deserve to be locked up for thirty years. The system owed me. The prison library had provided me with a classic by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I never read it in school, but the boredom of prison caused me to read everything I could get my hands on. I found the book both upsetting and useful at the same time. After nine years as a detainee of the State, three things came together that would provide my freedom. Baker’s empty house for a week, the chance for enough cash to last me a while, and a perfect escape plan from Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The day came and sure enough, Baker didn’t pick us up. His underling did and fussed up a storm that Baker took off on his cruise and left him to run us around mowing. I had a couple of repairs and also did my share of mowing, trimming, and blowing. We kept a pretty typical schedule and I knew the last job would take us near dusk and about a half mile from Baker’s house. As trustees, they’d load up the six of us and drop us off without so much as a count. The typical trustee on Baker’s crew had a shorter sentence and were non-violent offenders. Low risk for escape. But, I wasn’t typical. As the boys came close to finishing, I told the boss man I had to fix something. I walked back to the truck, snagged his jacket, put it on inside out, and kept right on walking. I picked up my pace and disappeared between two houses and right down the alley. I poked my head out just to see if anyone had seen me leave the job site. Sure enough, the guard loaded up the guys and drove off. He must not have noticed me missing and those boys wouldn’t have said a thing. We had a code.

With the jacket, I just looked like anyone else out for a walk. As the sun went down, no one would notice and few people hung out in the alleys behind their houses anyway. I had never liked those rear-entry garages until that day. Before long, I made it to Baker’s, used the key he had hidden in a fake rock, and walked right into my home sweet home for the next few days. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried they’d show back up. I figured I needed to keep all the lights off and headed back to the master bedroom that had only two windows facing another house. They had blackout curtains so I could have a little light inside or even watch TV at night. When you’ve been locked up for nine years, TV sounded pretty tempting.

I accidentally bumped the desk and the computer came on. Baker’s wife’s Facebook stared back at me. Right there, I had assurances they not only had left, but she gave me confirmation that she’d use the ship’s internet cafe to let me know where they were each day. Of course, she wasn’t letting me know personally, but I certainly appreciated her status updates. I still feared the guards coming to the house once they realized I had escaped. If the searchers showed up, I’d hide in the attic or sneak out the back. I realized I needed to get the money before I did anything else and keep it handy if I had to make a run for it.

In the closet, carpet peeled back, secret floor removed, sat the metal box. I pulled it out. My heartbeat increased. Sweat ran down my back. What if he took all the money with him? I opened the lid to find stacks of green staring back. I also found three more metal boxes. Right there, in the closet, I made stacks of various denominations from one-dollar bills to fifties. I couldn’t believe the first count but the second count came within twenty bucks. There before me lay $67, 342. If I played my cards right, I could make that last two maybe three years on the run. I also wouldn’t have the problem of always breaking crisp, new hundred-dollar bills and looking suspicious. That currency, mostly fives, tens, and twenties, was sufficiently wrinkled and worn. Perfection!

I snatched an old backpack on the closet shelf, packed the cash, and returned the metal boxes and carpet to their previous condition. Thankfully, they left one suitcase behind so I went shopping. I tried on some jeans, slacks, and shirts. Sure enough, Baker and I shared the same sizes. His shoes were a bit too big, but like my mother always said before she ran off, “Growing room.” I packed it with enough clothes to last several days and had the backpack next to it in case I needed to leave in a hurry. I showered and tried on his suit. I thought that might be a good disguise for my ultimate getaway.

Did they know I was missing yet? The next count would surely reveal that. The idiot guard that took us to that day's mowing jobs probably would love for it to look like I had escaped from the prison. I could see him even bribing others and pretending to check me back in. Then, it dawned on me. I went back to the computer and sure enough, Baker had left his email program logged in for me to read. I remember about a year prior they had someone try to run off, and I overheard the guards talking about monitoring their email for updates. No one really texted on their flip phones back then.

Now what? I had the cash. I had his wife’s car in the garage, keys in the cupholder. I’d use that to drive off in a few days. I decided to sit back and do what Mrs. Stow told me. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two slaves hid in the master’s attic for a few days until the searchers and their dogs gave up. They even stole some money for their eventual travels. Genius! So, I heated up some leftover lasagna, popped open a cold beer, and watched a baseball game.

Sirens rang out. I jumped up and thought about making my run for it right then, just two hours after my escape. I looked through the front window and noticed an ambulance move through the neighborhood.

Phew!

Ding.

The computer summoned me with the sound of a new email. There it was. Prisoner 0256942 was missing with my full name and description. The last part about being possibly armed and dangerous was a bit much. They lined out all the roadblock locations, but I smiled at the search dogs starting location. They’d start at the prison. I knew it. They thought I had escaped there, not from the landscaping crew. What a relief! No way they’d think I had escaped in town and certainly not hanging out in Baker’s home.

For the next few days, I tweaked my packing adding some toiletries and other items I thought I needed. I made sure the wife’s car started and noticed a near full tank of gas. I wouldn’t have to make any stops. I searched on the internet for how to cross into Mexico, how to buy a fake American driver’s license and passport there, and for places to stay. I searched for how to fly from Mexico to Australia. I drank all of Baker’s beer and polished off all the food they had left behind. I watched dozens of movies they had and took a couple of long baths. Did I feel bad about doing that to Baker? Not in the least. I didn’t feel sorry for his wife either because she knew exactly what he had been doing the whole time. I heard them arguing one time because she wanted him to work us harder and make more money.

On the third day, her Facebook showed them in Belize but his email gave me my ticket to freedom. The dogs had given up the second day, they had pulled all the roadblocks, and assumed I was long gone. I decided to leave at 4:30 in the morning. I knew Baker’s wife sometimes left really early. So, the neighbors wouldn’t think anything of her car leaving and it would remain dark enough that no one would notice I drove the car. I barely slept and rose at 4:00 AM, showered, shaved, and put on the suit. What prisoner escapes in a suit, I thought. She drove a pretty new SUV, so I’d match the car as a businessman driving toward his business to do business things. Just a normal commute.

I had my map for the three-hour drive to Del Rio, Texas, a prominent border crossing. I put the suitcase in the trunk but kept the backpack right next to me. I left the house just as I found it except for the missing items. I also took my green scrubs and trash and threw them in the back of the car. Baker and his wife would return the next day but probably not immediately notice the missing items and food. They’d see the car missing, but that would only cause an immediate call for the police to report the stolen vehicle. I opened the garage, backed out, closed the garage with the opener, and headed out of town as any normal person would drive out of town.

What if the roadblocks actually stayed up? What if one of the guards on their way to work pulled up next to me at a stop light? What if, what if. I remained composed and drove conservatively. I stopped at the last stop light before leaving town for the highway. A policeman stopped across from me coming into town. We were the only two cars on the road. The dark hid his face and presumably mine. The light turned green and he didn’t move so I didn’t either. That was it. He got me. I began to panic. Should I take off? Then he drove by without even a look so I took off as well. The more miles I put between me and the town eased my worries.

I rolled into Del Rio, found the busiest retail strip, and parked the car between several others. With my suitcase and backpack, I waved down a taxi for a motel within walking distance of the bus station. I never planned to go to Mexico. I simply left breadcrumbs on Baker’s computer to make it look as though I’d take public transportation from a motel in Del Rio to cross the border. They could search for me there. Or try and figure out how I flew to Australia. They’d eventually find the car with my maps and notes. All a lie. They might find the taxi driver who’d affirm that he took me to the motel. I even checked into the motel, went to the room, used the bathroom, pulled the sheets back, and walked out leaving the key behind. The motel clerk would confirm all that. Baker’s computer history would show all those plans.

What it would not show was me changing into shorts and t-shirt, wearing Baker’s sunglasses, and boarding a bus to Oklahoma City. That was the riskiest part because they might be looking for me at the bus station. However, Baker had told another guard during that last escape that they only monitor the bus stations nearby. Down at the border, they just look on the buses as they cross into Mexico. I then took another bus to Joplin, Missouri. Then south a bit. I zig-zagged from one city to another, paid cash for cheap motels, and even did a little sightseeing. Any inquiries from anyone looking for me would be met with continued confusion as to my eventual destination. After two weeks, I stepped off the bus in Casper, Wyoming wondering if I’d head to California or maybe up into Canada. As bad as I wanted to use the library computer and search for information about me or even Clint Baker, I avoided that temptation. I didn’t know if the computer nerds had some way to find computers searching for specific information. Maybe someday I would. How I would have loved to have seen the look on his face when he found four empty metal boxes. I figured those investigating my escape would eventually realize that Baker’s car was left in Del Rio by me. They then would search his house and check the internet history. They would be smart. Baker wasn’t. He was a crook.

I had done enough searching on fake IDs that I knew enough to find one in Denver during my brief stay, along with a social security card showing a number that would check as valid in the vast bureaucracy of the Federal government. I needed those to get by. I could let the cash dwindle down to nothing, but decided to find honest work for a change and keep that as backup. I could never return to Texas. I’d never see my family again, but none were worth seeing. After my mother ran off, my father spent every evening with a bottle and tended to provide me life lessons with his fists. He told me to hit the road the day I graduated from high school. I had an older sister, but I was the family embarrassment. She didn’t want anything to do with me. Once I crossed the Red River on that bus, I knew I’d never return.

Robbing a bank was not my first mistake. Trusting my accomplice to not turn chicken when it came time to let the teller know who was boss. So I had to do the pistol-whipping. The judge had an election to win and sentenced us both to thirty years. Thankfully, they never connected that one to the other bank jobs we had pulled. My court-appointed lawyer said with good behavior I could get out in sixteen or seventeen years. Good behavior and I never made good company. I couldn’t stay in prison. I’d rather look over my shoulder every day for the rest of my life. Unlike ol’ Andy Dufresne, I was guilty as sin. What they call a violent offender. A career criminal although my career lasted less than a year. Baker should never have trusted me. I played him from day one. Trustee? Psst.

One thing every mid-size or larger town needs is small engine repair. I found a job in Casper doing that but realized a sharp person looking for me might assume that as well. So, I left Casper and moved on to the next city. With all that time in prison reading, I had wondered if I could write one of those stories. Although I never admitted it to my friends, I liked my English classes and enjoyed all the stories they made us read. The prison offered a creative writing class taught by some do-gooder who came in once a week. He liked my writing samples and kept working with me until I had a few good short stories.

As I settled into the new town, one where they drink a lot of coffee, I overheard two women talking about writing. They wrote romance and self-published. They didn’t make a lot of money, but they made money. I didn’t need to make much. I lived on the cheap. For over an hour, I pretended to read and stroked the beard I had grown as they educated me.

As of today, I have seven different series under my belt. Each one with three or four short little eBooks that, if printed, would run under a hundred pages. I assume that mostly women are buying my books, and I thank them for the two dollars in royalty I earn on each one. They buy one and have to finish the series. The writing ain’t no good, but the stories are good enough to keep ’em buying. Lots of twists and turns. Lots of unreliable narrators. A great model to earn money for someone that wants to remain anonymous. I seriously doubt, no, I’m quite confident, my readers have no idea of the background of their favorite romance author—Cassidy Pass. Or Tilly Samms. Or E.M. Chance. Cheap names for cheap stories.








Article © Darren Sapp. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-05-01
Image(s) are public domain.
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