Dexter Drake Coffin III, the heir to a multimillion-dollar tea bag fortune who escaped from police custody 18 days ago, said yesterday he would surrender to police if the administrator of the Charlottesville jail where he had been held is fired.
Coffin, 37, telephoned The Washington Post to say that he would "absolutely" return to serve his 11-year sentence for fraudulently obtaining drugs and writing bad checks if Michael McMahan, the administrator of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Joint Security Complex, is dismissed.
Coffin, who refused to disclose his whereabouts but said he was not in Virginia, accused McMahan of threatening his life.
Coffin, who was convicted of 20 counts of illegally obtaining prescription drugs, said another inmate had told him that McMahan said he "guaranteed Dexter won't walk out of this institution."
"It's all baloney," McMahan said. "I deny categorically and strongly that either directly or indirectly I said anything against Mr. Coffin."
McMahan called Coffin a "master manipulator" and "a con's con," and challenged Coffin to "present his case to the court."
Coffin, who has a personal fortune of $19 million from his family's invention of the flow-through tea bag, led a jet-set life with yachts and fast cars and was living with his fourth wife in Charlottesville before his imprisonment. On April 22, as he was returning to the Charlottesville jail from a counseling session with his psychiatrist, he slipped away from two armed guards who were waiting for him outside a Harrisonburg, Va., hotel restroom.
Coffin said he telephoned The Washington Post because he wanted his side of the escape aired. "I read the story you did about the rich kid turned bad -- which wasn't quite right," Coffin said, referring to a story about his escape.
State police and an Albermarle County prosecutor confirmed that state officials were investigating the jail.
"We are looking into certain allegations of irregularities," said Special Agent I. Cecil Handy, who heads the Virginia State Police criminal division. "But I can assure him he'll be safe if he turns himself in."
"These allegations [Coffin] is now making are part of the circumstances surrounding his escape and we are investigating everything surrounding the escape," said Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Lindsay G. Dorrier Jr.
Coffin said in the telephone interview that he was "doing fine" in jail until McMahan wrote a memo to the staff saying anyone who gave Coffin special privileges would be fired. McMahan said he ordered his staff not to give Coffin special favors, because other inmates were complaining.
"There were allegations that he [Coffin] went grocery shopping and was out for drinks in Charlottesville," McMahan said.
McMahan said Coffin was highly manipulative and "didn't mind talking about his $19 million personal fortune." McMahan said investigators were looking into allegations that guards were captivated by his smooth, engaging manner.
McMahan "blames me for the grievances filed against him because he thought I was helping the others inmates ," Coffin said. "He just started making my life difficult. He ignored a court order and wouldn't let me have some telephone calls."
A 12-year jail employe who worked his way from guard to top supervisor, McMahan said, "I take pride in one thing -- my name; and if he's going to make these accusations he ought to come down and prove it instead of hiding . . . . "
Coffin, who was last seen entering a hotel restroom wearing his "jail blues," said yesterday that it was his idea to stop at the restaurant to eat dinner. The two guards were suspended after the incident and Lt. David C. Wallace, a 20-year employe who was second in command at the jail, was fired because of the escape.
A jail officer who asked not to be identified said that Coffin had made a lot of friends and enemies during his incarceration at the Charlottesville complex.
"There is so much going on here, we just don't know who to believe," the officer said.
Coffin has puzzled and frustrated law enforcement officers for more than a decade and in many states.
"He sold a yacht that didn't belong to him, took the $115,000 and left for France" when he was 24, said Charlottesville's Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Stephen B. Deaton. Deaton said most of Coffin's money was put in a trust by his family until his legal troubles are settled.
"My perception of what is going on is that his family has bailed him out so many times they're just tired of it," Deaton said. "His life style is so incredible. He'd go through hundreds of thousands of dollars."