Robert Lee Terry said yesterday he never tried to hide in the 12 years since he walked away from a Maryland prison camp and a life sentence for murder.

The 43-year-old Terry lived under his own name, worked with the Social Security card he had gotten when he was 16 and free, filed income tax returns, collected unemployment compensation and stayed close to his family.

But this week, two FBI agents walked into the office building cafeteria where Terry worked in the lush, rolling horse county of New Jersey. They took him away in handcuffs.

"I told them I'd been expecting them," said Terry, who had defiantly refused to live the life of a fugitive.

"I know it sounds crazy, but I didn't try to hide," said Terry in an interview room at the Essex County jail. "I lived my life like anyone else. It gave me confidence."

But there was one thing that Terry did hide, even from those closest to him, even from his wife Phyllis, who he has known for the past six years.

"I never told people about the crime. I was always ashamed."

The crime for which Terry was convicted was murder - the 1953 stabbing of an 60-year-old Baltimore librarian. The crime so incensed the city of Baltimore, that even after Terry was arrested and charged, police were ordered to stop and frisk all suspicious persons.

Terry, then 17 years old, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the stabbing that occured during a purse snatching on the street. He was sent first to the Maryland Penitentiary and after about 12 years was transferred to a minimum security prison camp, he said.

It was on a crisp October day, while at the Poplar Hill Correction Camp in Wicomico County on Maryland's Eastern Shore; that Terry said he "just decided to walk away."

He came back from his job on a garbage truck, changed his clothes, packed a small satchel and walked a few miles to a highway, where he hitched a ride to a small town and took a bus to Baltimore.

"I just left. I didn't think about the consequences," Terry now recalls.

But on the bus trip to Baltimore to see a girl he says he had fallen in love with through correspondence and visits, he suddenly realized: "I was just one year away from my parole hearing, and I thought, oh Lord, now what will I do."

Terry said he wrote to the penitentiary superintendent, asking him if there was some way he could return, but when two officers showed up to take Terry back to prison, he said, "I got scared. I ducked out and ran away."

Terry said he went to Brooklyn, where his mother and brothers and sisters still lived, got some money and started taking odd jobs, as a dishwasher, a cook, any restaurant work he could get.

"I stayed with my mother for a while. No one came to look for me. I acquired skills watching other people work," Terry says of those days in the late '60s.

Finally he nailed down a job as a grill man in a place called Pak-a-Snack in Manhattan. "I was making $3.50 an hour, real good money, and I stayed there 5 years."

His next job was at a warehouse for a butter and egg distributor also in Manhattan. There he joined a union, made about $12,000 a year and filled out income tax returns - again under his real name, Terry says.

It was while working at this job, "the best one I ever had" that Terry met Phyllis, the woman he would later marry.

He continued working, earning more each year, until he was laid off, about three years ago. Then he became ill and was hospitalized because of an ulcer that had been troubling him for years, Terry says.

"Phyllis took care of me. When I got well enough I wanted to take care of Phyllis," says Terry, who got another restaurant job in Manhattan early in 1978, and commuted to suburban Somerville, N.J., where Phyllis lived with her son, Timmy.

Last March 28, Terry and Phyllis were married. Last August, tired from the long commute to New York City, Terry got a job with a food service at the American Telephone & Telegraph long lines headquarters in Bedminster, N.J.

Recently, Terry, "a good worker," according to his boss William Schardt, got promoted and he was expecting his new raise to show up in his paycheck today.

He won't be there to collect it. An extradition hearing that could end with his being ordered back to a Maryland prison is also scheduled for this morning.

Terry said he will fight extradition, and his family met last night to scrape together funds to pay a lawyer.

Although the possibility of capture was always in the back of his mind, Terry said that he always felt "if I lived a good life, stayed clear of trouble, nobody would bother me."

He lived by that philosophy and it worked until last August, when on a Manhattan street Terry spotted a drunk lying in doorway, a wallet sticking out of his pocket.

"I had to touch it. I reached in, and I picked it up and I walked away," Terry recalls, his voice quavering. "At the corner, two cops picked me up. It was a decoy setup."

Terry was in jail for three days, he says, "thinking every second it was all over." But because he had no record in New York state, he says he was placed on probation. Still his fingerprints were sent to the National Crime Information Center computer, where authorities discovered that he was a fugitive from Maryland, according to Maryland State Police.

Maryland authorities contacted the FBI, whose agents located Terry in Bedminster.

The worst part of being found, Terry says, was having "to confess everything" to his wife.

Terry, who denied the killing and recanted his alleged confession during his trial in 1953, now says: "I did it, but it was not as they put it in the confession.

He says he now wants to be "judged" on his whole history. "I feel sorry, regretful, but I hope people will say, he did his 14 years, he went to prison a boy, 17 years old, but he came out as a man, able to take up his responsibilities, able to prove he can exist among society."