Raymond Eric Dodd Jr. tried his absolute best to get out of prison lawfully. In letter after letter, the convicted killer begged judges in Maryland and the District to have mercy on him, to reduce his sentences, to spare him from his punishment of 15 years to life behind bars.

"Your Honor, I am 20 years old and I have never been incarcerated as an adult. The past 10 months of my life has been miserable. This situation that I'm in has shaken me up," Dodd wrote to Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Rymer on April 12, 1996, one of dozens of his handwritten letters that are kept in court files. "I really want to do everything possible to gain my freedom back."

The judges were unsympathetic. If they wrote back at all, it was to lecture him about how he had to take responsibility for his actions.

So after four years of pleading for help, Dodd took matters into his own hands. On July 12, he escaped from a Maryland state prison in Hagerstown, possibly by hiding in a garbage truck.

Six weeks later, Dodd is still on the loose, making him one of Maryland's more successful jailbreakers in recent years. He is thought to have been on the lam from a maximum- or medium-security prison longer than any inmate since Harold Benjamin Dean, a convicted murderer who broke out of the state's Supermax prison in Baltimore in November 1991 and was free for 10 months.

Maryland State Police said there have been no confirmed sightings of Dodd since he escaped. Investigators said they believe Dodd is in the District, where he was born and still has friends, although they declined to give details.

Maryland State Police Lt. Joe Barker said state troopers, FBI agents and U.S. marshals are looking for Dodd. "There's no way to know how long these searches might take," Barker said. "You rely on a good investigation and you never give up."

Dodd apparently liberated himself from the medium-security Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown during his work shift as a janitor. The job allowed him to roam outside his housing unit without constant monitoring, though he was still confined to the prison grounds by a large perimeter fence, said Dave Towers, spokesman for the state Division of Correction.

Investigators think Dodd may have climbed aboard one of three garbage trucks that left the prison the day he escaped. But they also are looking into the possibility that he climbed over some buildings and dropped into an outdoor visitors waiting area, where he may have blended into the crowd. "We won't know the real deal until we get him back," Towers said.

Dodd is one of three inmates who have escaped this year from Maryland prisons--not counting pre-release centers such as halfway houses that have limited supervision. The two others were a murderer and an armed robber who scaled the razor-wire fences of a prison in Jessup on May 18 and tasted freedom for about a week before they were caught.

Prisoners who are able to break out are usually nabbed again within a few days or hours. But if Dodd's letters are any indication, the 24-year-old from Landover Hills is especially determined to stay free.

"I believe that the sentence that was given to me was harsh. I believe that I haven't done anything to deserve a life sentence. . . . I ask the courts to vacate the sentence that has been imposed. The courts wouldn't be cutting me free but giving me hope that somewhere in the future that I can earn my freedom and family back." -- July 8, 1997, letter to D.C. Superior Court Judge Cheryl M. Long

Dodd's criminal troubles began on Sept. 24, 1992, when he was 17. He and two accomplices tried to rob a Northeast Washington home on Division Avenue. A man inside was fatally shot.

Although he argued that he wasn't the gunman, Dodd pleaded guilty a year later to attempted armed robbery and voluntary manslaughter while armed.

Judge Long overruled prosecutors' objections and sentenced Dodd to three years' probation under the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act, which enables judges to hand out lighter sentences to young offenders with the hope that they will mend their ways.

But on Aug. 2, 1995, Dodd was arrested in Prince George's County and was charged with robbing a Capitol Heights gas station. He was later found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

As a result of that conviction, Long revoked Dodd's probation in the District and sentenced him to 10 years to life, ordering that he serve that time after he completed his Maryland sentence. "This Court took a chance with the defendant and that opportunity was squandered," Long wrote.

Facing the foreseeable future behind bars, Dodd began writing a stream of plaintive letters. He wrote to the judges in Maryland and the District who handled his cases, alternately asking for their help and their pity.

At first, he insisted he was an innocent man. But as time passed and that didn't work, he took a different tack, acknowledging that he had abused drugs and alcohol and that he was a compulsive gambler.

Yes, he had done wrong, he wrote. But he said he had mended his ways, and he promised to become a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen if he could rejoin society.

"Your Honor, I am writing you in concern of reduction of my sentence. . . . My family is supportive and is willing to allow me to live with them until I get myself financially situated. And even then my family will be my backbone. All that I need now is the opportunity." -- Oct. 2, 1996, letter to Judge Rymer

Raymond Dodd Sr., 52, of Landover Hills, said he hasn't heard from his son, directly or indirectly, since he escaped six weeks ago.

"Like I told the police, if he ever calls me, I'll be the first one to give them a call because there's no way that I want to be charged as an accomplice," Dodd said. "I'm not going to be a complete idiot and add to my embarrassment."

Dodd hasn't seen his son in years. He said he refused to visit him in prison after he was convicted of armed robbery. "I'm from the old school," he said. "You're only allowed so many mistakes in life."

Dodd declined to talk much about his son's past, though he grudgingly confirmed a few biographical facts that appear in court records. Raymond Jr. was born in the District, and grew up with his parents in Landover Hills. He was a reasonably smart kid who earned his general equivalency diploma at age 16 and took courses at Prince George's Community College when he wasn't locked up.

And while he talked tough love and offered no excuses for his son's crimes, Raymond Dodd Sr. didn't exactly urge his namesake to surrender.

"If I were him, I'd be thumbing through the law books to see which countries don't have an extradition treaty with the U.S.," he said. "If you were going to face spending the next 20 years behind bars, wouldn't you? If he stays in this country, sooner or later, they're going to catch him."

"I am not saying that I am an angel. But what I am saying is that I have been through a lot in life and I'm finally trying to get myself together. . . . Please give me the opportunity." -- Feb. 9, 1996, letter to Judge Rymer

On July 3, 1995, Raymond Dodd walked into a Capitol Heights Exxon station waving a Cobray M-11 semiautomatic pistol. "Nobody move!" he yelled. Two cashiers and a customer buying a lottery ticket promptly obeyed.

Not Wilson Beach, the gas station's owner for 35 years, who was fed up with criminals ripping him off. It was the sixth time in six months that robbers had hit his business. This time, though, he was ready: He had a .357-caliber revolver stuck in his pants, hidden under his shirt, and it was loaded.

But he didn't use it. Beach said he worried there were too many people around who could get hit by a stray bullet or caught in the crossfire, so he didn't pull the trigger.

Instead, he jumped Dodd from behind and tried to grab his weapon. The customer ran over and joined the struggle but was tossed aside as Dodd and Beach wrestled and fought for control of the weapon. After a few tense moments, Beach managed to jam the gun's firing mechanism, and Dodd ran off.

"I honestly believe this guy could be a coldblooded killer," said Beach, who suffered two cracked ribs and injured his leg. "He was so hopped up on drugs when he came in here. He took a 230-pound man who was on his back and bounced him clear against the wall."

"I've tried to get my life back together. I informed the courts of the drug problem that I had and that I'm seeking the proper treatment. . . . I would really appreciate it if you will reconsider my case and have me brought in front of you. I desperately ask the courts to reconsider." -- July 17, 1997, letter to Judge Rymer

Dodd didn't give up hope that the system might cut him another break, that he might get a kindhearted judge to listen.

He persuaded the Maryland Court of Appeals to review his case, but it rejected his request for a new trial. He also was granted a post-conviction relief hearing in front of a Prince George's judge, but he lost that round, too.

So he kept writing the judges, kept appealing.

On July 9, the Prince George's clerk of court received one last letter from Dodd, addressed to Judge Rymer. What he had to say, however, is not known. The clerk's office said it lost the letter before anyone could read it.

Three days later, Dodd perhaps had hopped the garbage truck to freedom.