“I felt sorry for him,” said Patricia Wright, his landlady and friend for the past decade. “He was a little odd, but a very sweet man.”
A few weeks ago, Watson sent Wright a cryptic e-mail. He apologized for what she was about to hear about him. He hoped they could still be friends.
Then TV news crews tracked her down, and she learned that Jack Watson, the mysterious do-gooder, was not Jack Watson. He was Anthony Rackley, an escaped felon from Maryland who had done time for armed robbery and been on the run for 33 years. He turned himself in last month after reporting that his Lions Club fundraising partner, whom he had told about his past, was blackmailing him for a greater portion of the money they raised.
The club member, through his daughter, denies the blackmailing allegation, saying he didn’t know that Watson — Rackley — was a wanted man and accusing him of doing improper things with the money. Rackley begs to differ but acknowledges that he kept 70 percent of donations for himself, with an additional 10 percent going to his partner — percentages that raise red flags among experts on charitable fundraising.
“The bottom line, then, is that the Lions Club only gets 20 percent,” said Doug White, who teaches fundraising management and ethics at Columbia University.
“That is a very bad number.”
The Oklahoma City district attorney’s office declined to file extortion charges. A senior official called the spat a “he said, he said” and added, “You really can’t make this stuff up.”
Whatever the case, turning himself in has freed Rackley, 62, to tell the story of his life on the run. He slipped away in 1980 from a pre-release program in Baltimore, leaving behind an abusive family, a history of street crime and a cherished older sister who, thanks to his unmasking, has reappeared in his life.
“Life deals you a hand,” Rackley said in a series of interviews by phone from the Oklahoma County jail. “You play that hand, and you make the best of it. I’ve never been rich, but I’ve always been free. I decided to live whatever years I had free — whether it be one or now 331
2 — the way I wanted.”
He chose his name, Jack Watson, to honor President John F. Kennedy and a friend whose last name was Watson. He chose Oklahoma City because he saw a help-wanted ad for a fundraiser and liked the people. He chose his profession after an acquaintance suggested raising money would be a good fit for his “gift of gab.”
Though he got more money than the Lions Club, Rackley said he spent much of it on charity work and solicited donations of items worth many thousands more: food, glasses, clothes, gift cards. In his sparsely furnished house, his landlady said, she found receipts for charitable donations and a thousand dollars worth of coats he was about to deliver to the poor.
“I have people out there that I helped,” he said. He added: “I’m not a good guy. I’ve done some bad things in my life. You can call it atoning. You can call it whatever you want. But I went to bed with a clear conscience.”
Rackley’s case has puzzled law enforcement officials, many of whom can’t recall an escapee just offering himself up for apprehension after so long away. But he’s not the longest on-the-run Maryland fugitive to be recaptured. That apparently is Willie Parker, found in 2008, at age 81, living peacefully in North Carolina after escaping from an Eastern Shore prison 43 years earlier. He eventually was paroled.
Rackley hopes for a similar resolution. As he awaits extradition, his criminal past has startled charitable organizations around Oklahoma City, who dealt with him as he raised and distributed money for the poor, the blind, victims of tornadoes and a camp for disabled children he ran once a year.
“He was so kind and generous,” said Vickie Gray, an administrative assistant at Haynes Equipment who helped organize donations Rackley picked up. She once visited his camp for the disabled. “I know it was legit,” she said. “We are just in total shock around here.”
She passed along a message for him: “Please tell him we say hello.”
Pain and prison
Rackley was born in McMinnville, Tenn., the biggest city in a small county 70 miles from Nashville. It was the early 1950s, and his life was not straight out of “Leave It to Beaver.” He met his biological father once. His mother wasn’t around a lot.
When he was 2, his mother found a new husband, and the family moved to Baltimore, where his stepfather, now dead, was a steelworker. The house was a miserable place for Rackley and his older sister, Wanda, who said they lived in fear. After dinner, served promptly at 6, if anyone had misbehaved that day, there was a beating.
They turned to books for solace. “We would read and escape into a place where it didn’t hurt, where people had enough money, where families got together to laugh,” said his sister, who eventually changed her name to Ocean Meir to help put the past behind her.
Reached at her home in Baltimore, Rackley’s 86-year-old mother, Ruby Zeller, said, “It’s been a long time, and I really don’t feel like talking about it.” Then she hung up.
As a young teen, Rackley bought a bike for $8, and with that freedom he found trouble. He committed petty street crimes and was sent to a home for troubled boys. By the time he was 14, he was living on the streets and breaking into homes at night to steal food. “I did what I had to do to survive,” he said.
In 1969, at 18, he went to prison for armed robbery, serving six years before he was paroled. He stayed out for two years until violating his parole. He went back to the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup and, at age 29, was in a pre-release program.
But just days after a parole hearing that he thought went positively, Rackley said he grew fearful that he would be killed by a senior prison official because he had incriminating information about him. A Maryland corrections spokesman said officials know nothing about Rackley’s claims, but an FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City said agents recently interviewed him, at his request, about the allegations.
“When you have a bad feeling, I’ve always thought, ‘Don’t just stand there. Do something,’ ” Rackley said.
On a work assignment in Baltimore, Rackley told the guard that he wanted to pick up some fried chicken. The guard let him go. He hailed a cab, ducked into a movie theater and the next day he boarded a train to New Orleans.
Within 16 hours, he was tending bar. He stayed six months, he said, and then went to Michigan, Washington state, Idaho and Minnesota, though those travels and his activities along the way couldn’t be verified independently. In 1991, he settled in Oklahoma, eventually working with prominent organizations such as the Oklahoma Foundation for the Disabled, whose director, Georgia Devening, said Watson — Rackley — was “very sincere” about his work.
He marvels at the details of his double life. For one, he somehow made it through adulthood without government-issued identification. Asked how he signed up for utilities, he said, “I called.” He had a Twitter account
, for which he took on the persona of a crude poet and used his own picture. And he recalls once sitting next to a senior law enforcement official at an awards dinner.
In the county jail, Rackley has been quizzed by inmates about how he managed to stay free. “I kept my head down, minded my own business and stayed out of trouble,” he said.
Oklahoma City police support that assertion. “He has apparently lived a fine upstanding life while he’s been here,” Master Sgt. Gary Knight said.
But last month, Rackley called authorities after a dispute over money with Joe Byrd, his fundraising partner for the Lions Club. Rackley’s deal with the club, he said, was that he took 70 percent of the $25,000 to $30,000 he estimated he raised a year. Ten percent went to Byrd, and 20 percent went to the Lions Club.
Tom Cummings, a Lion district leader in Oklahoma, said using hired fundraisers was “extremely rare” in the organization, which has a special interest in vision issues. Beverly Willard, president of the Belle Isle Lions Club, said the club raised money this way because its members weren’t well off and were generally older and because several had vision problems of their own.
White, the fundraising expert, said commission-based arrangements with hired fundraisers violate ethical standards. He faulted the Lions chapter for making that deal.
But such pacts are “fairly common” because they offer organizations “found money,” said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group. “They think, ‘Hey, even if we only get 20 cents on the dollar, it’s 20 cents we didn’t have,’ ” Berger said.
Rackley said he had told Byrd about his escape about 10 years ago to protect the club from being blindsided if he was ever caught. Willard, who is Byrd’s daughter, disputes Rackley’s contention that her father demanded more money — or else. She said Rackley threatened her father, shoving him. Rackley denied that.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have any choice in the matter,’ ” Rackley said. “The one thing you can’t do is tell me I have no choice. The penalty you pay might be very high, but there’s always a choice.”
In light of everything that’s happened, the club’s members recently voted to retire the club.
Reclaiming a life
There are 2,117 days — almost six years — left on Rackley’s sentence. Maryland corrections officials say it’s likely that he will have a parole hearing when he returns. Prosecutors had charged him with escape, but the case was dropped in 1998 for unknown reasons.
Meanwhile, Rackley is a prisoner again. He has lost about 20 pounds on a steady diet of bologna sandwiches. He has been practicing his gift of gab with other inmates and talking to family members he hasn’t spoken with in decades.
His sister’s son reached out first. Then Rackley called his mother. When she answered, he told her: “You’re 86 years old; it’s 20 minutes to 9 in the evening. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
She laughed, Rackley said. He said she remembered the good, not the bad. His mother told him she loved him. He thanked her and hung up. A couple of days later, he called again. This time he said he loved her, too. “I gave her some peace,” he said.
Rackley has also spoken several times with his sister, whom he called “the one good thing I’ve had in my life.” She has missed him for more than three decades. “There’s been an incredible loss, an emptiness, a link in the family chain that has been lost,” she said. “So finding him is really quite amazing.”
She’s been calling him Jack in preparation for his plan to change his name to his alias when he is free again. He wants to return to Oklahoma. “I’ve never met better people,” he said. “I’ve never done better things. I’ve never had a better life.”
He is certain of this: “I am Jack Watson.”
Researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.