More than a decade of life on the lam ended for Leroy Caldwell yesterday morning when the 38-year-old North Carolina prison escapee was lured to a Maryland State Police barracks and arrested on a fugitive charge.

Caldwell, a convicted felon who escaped from a minimum-security prison in Wilmington, N.C., in 1977, apparently had led a low-profile, crime-free life in the Washington area since his flight, according to Maryland police who took him into custody at Forestville.

Caldwell was serving five to seven years for armed robbery, possession of heroin with intent to distribute it and an earlier escape conviction when he fled the New Hanover correctional unit on July 2, 1977.

After escaping, he came to Washington and was hired in mid-August to wrap bread at Ottenberg's Bakery, a large bakery in Northeast that caters to hotels and restaurants.

"He is a good employe," James Laitta, the bakery's director of employe relations, said yesterday. Lately, Caldwell had been working on the loading dock and was paid more than $24,000 annually.

"This is a shocker, a real shocker," Laitta said.

Police said Caldwell had his mail sent to a friend's home in Hillcrest Heights in Prince George's County but apparently had lived with a woman in Northwest "for some time," said State Police Sgt. Vernon Herron. "From all indications, nobody knew anything about his past. It's like the television show 'The Fugitive,' " Herron said.

"He said that he wanted to buy a house but was afraid that they'd do a credit check and catch him," Herron said. "He said he was always afraid of being found out."

Herron said Caldwell told police that he had a wife and two grown children in North Carolina and had made several trips annually to see them but had never been found out.

His capture yesterday, in fact, was something of a fluke.

Caldwell rented a Toyota from a downtown car rental agency last week, and police said that another man was driving the car when he was stopped at a JFK Highway (I-95) toll plaza last weekend near Perryville, Md., because he could not pay the $1 toll.

As a matter of procedure, the driver's name was run through the National Crime Information computer. When the renter's name, Caldwell, was entered, they discovered he was wanted in North Carolina.

On Thursday, Caldwell returned the car, using his American Express card to pay for it, and was told that he would have to sign a release at the Forestville police barracks because the car was late. When he appeared at the police station at 10 a.m. yesterday, police arrested him.

Herron said that as Caldwell was being taken to jail in Upper Marlboro he said, "This is going to make some people happy and some people really sad."