The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He got a second chance after 27 years in prison. Then he went missing.

Kevin Flythe, now 52, has serious mental and physical disabilities. His attorneys say the Bureau of Prisons released him without a plan.

Kevin Flythe was released from a prison in West Virginia on Jan. 27 and was supposed to arrive on a bus hours later at D.C.'s Union Station. He never made it. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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She was waiting at Union Station to see her cousin for the first time in 28 years, trying to figure out how to catch him up on decades of change.

Their family, once united under one roof, had moved and married and given birth. LeDroit Park in Northwest D.C., where they had grown up together, was no longer a Black enclave. Everyone had smartphones now.

Michelle Royster, 45, was ready to integrate him into the life she had built in his absence — a chance she never thought she would have after Kevin Flythe was convicted of murder.

Flythe was released from a prison in West Virginia in late January, five months after he suffered a stroke that left him barely verbal and partially paralyzed. A judge reduced his sentence under a new early release amendment in the District, which meant on a Thursday, Flythe, 52, was supposed to be on a bus, on the way to his second chance.

Or so his cousin thought, as she stood outside the train station in the icy air.

Royster waited until the wee hours of Friday, Jan. 28, scanning the ebbs and flows of travelers for a face that would never appear. Two weeks later, she was still looking for him, more desperate, angry and grief-stricken by the day.

Flythe’s family and attorneys have filed two missing persons reports and galvanized a village of public defenders to conduct a sweeping search that spans multiple cities. Fearing the worst, they point to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for allegedly failing to respond to their efforts ahead of Flythe’s release to put a plan in place to ensure he got home safely.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Flythe’s case or the circumstances of his release, saying the agency “does not comment on pending litigation or matters subject to legal proceedings.” But she said the bureau “properly identifies, tracks, and provides services to inmate with disabilities,” which “includes assisting with release when warranted.”

“I am saddened by the story of Kevin,” said Keesha Middlemass, a fellow at Brookings Institution and an associate professor in the department of political science at Howard University who wrote a book about the politics and policies of prisoner reentry. “But I am not surprised.”

Bookended by illness

Flythe had what his cousin described as a happy childhood in Washington, raised by his mom, a teacher, and his aunt in a house full of their children. They had mandatory family outings every Saturday — to museums and movies — and family dinner every weeknight. Flythe enrolled in a program that introduced him to sports like horseback riding, chess and fencing. He always had friends.

But his life was also shaped by illness, which Royster said was probably caused by lead poisoning. Flythe was born in 1969 Washington, nine years before federal law banned lead paint in houses and at a time when Black children were disproportionately exposed to the chemical element (they still often are). He grew up with his left arm functionally paralyzed and serious cognitive disabilities that delayed his development.

As a result of his illnesses and his particularly agreeable disposition, his cousin said, Flythe was vulnerable to the influences of other children in his neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, Kevin was kind but he was also a person who was easily influenced,” she said.

Royster said she never wanted to learn the “full details” of the night Flythe, then 24 years old, strangled another man, and she contends that he acted on behalf of others if he committed the crime at all. A jury, however, ultimately found Flythe guilty of robbing and killing a 47-year-old named Paul McClure. A judge sentenced him to a minimum of 35 years behind bars.

In the following decades, he moved through various federal prisons where D.C. inmates are housed. In August, he suffered a stroke while incarcerated in West Virginia. It all but paralyzed his right arm, which given his immobile left one, left him unable to use most of his upper body. The stroke also wreaked havoc on his brain, making it so he could hardly communicate more than a “yes or no,” his attorneys said in court filings.

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In seeking Flythe’s release, his attorneys argued the prison system did not provide adequate health care before or after the stroke. They alleged, in court documents, that the agency failed to properly treat Flythe’s hypertension and hypercholesterolemia, two conditions that can make a person more vulnerable to strokes.

After the stroke, his attorneys said the Bureau of Prisons did not provide Flythe with speech or physical therapy for months, which is critically important for recovery. The bureau declined to comment on these allegations.

Flythe’s attorneys argued he should be let out of prison to allow his family to care for him, first under a compassionate release statute and later under a recently expanded D.C. law, which allows judges to consider reducing sentences of certain people who were under age 25 at the time they committed a crime.

“This 52-year-old individual who currently lacks the ability to speak beyond ‘yes or no,’ who has limited functioning of both of his arms due to a prior injury and his stroke, and who has limited and worsening vision would hardly pose a danger if released,” his attorneys wrote in a memo to reduce his sentence.

Prosecutors said in court filings they tried to contact family of the victim, McClure, in advance of court hearings regarding Flythe’s release but did not receive a response. The Washington Post could not reach McClure’s family to seek comment.

The government did not contest his release but asked that he be placed on supervised probation for five years. On Jan. 25, D.C. Superior Court Judge Jason Park ordered Flythe be released on probation within three days, finding he would not be a danger to the community.

‘How is he getting home???’

Claire Madill, Flythe’s attorney when she was with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, has facilitated the release of six other clients from prison since she joined the organization last year. She said that the process has always begun with repeated calls and emails to the Bureau of Prisons to update her client’s release papers with the appropriate home address and receive their travel itinerary. She explains to clients how their travel, by bus or plane, will work and how to reach her if there are any problems. If a person is critically ill or disabled, like Flythe, she said she has arranged for someone to pick them up at the prison.

That process broke down, she said, when it came time for Flythe to be released. Madill said she tried repeatedly tried to connect with prison employees about Flythe’s reentry, but at least a dozen calls and emails went unanswered.

The first time she heard anything concrete from the Bureau of Prisons was on Jan. 27, when an executive assistant with the West Virginia prison emailed her saying that Flythe had been released that morning.

She replied: “He was released this morning???? How is he getting home??? What is his bus schedule? I have been asking for this information for several days.”

A Bureau of Prisons official based in West Virginia later called Madill to tell her, she said, that the prison was not authorized to give her Flythe’s release information — a statement she disputes. The official ultimately told her Flythe should be on a bus arriving in D.C. late that night.

Royster watched people file off when that bus arrived at Union Station after 1 a.m. Jan. 28, but Flythe was not one of them.

Royster and Madill said they later learned that Flythe’s scheduled itinerary required him to change buses twice, once in Cleveland and once in Baltimore, a task that they did not think he could mentally or physically manage. They would also learn that Flythe’s release papers listed a home address that was 27 years outdated. His family moved out of that house in 1995.

Middlemass described Flythe’s story as the “worst case scenario of the norm” when it comes to reentry after long stints in prison. She said people are generally released with a bus or plane ticket home, dropped off at a transport hub, and then left to navigate a completely new world alone, without even a cellphone. Often, they may not have family members willing to take them in.

The Bureau of Prisons formal policy says that prison officials working on release plans for people with disabilities should consult with a social worker or reentry affairs coordinator, who can locate “resources, specialized services, and direct placements in the community serving individuals with disabilities.” It is not clear if that was done. The policy outlines an exception to that rule for “immediate releases.”

‘He already did his time’

There are fliers with Flythe’s face and “MISSING” in big block letters posted on Twitter and at bus stations from Cleveland to D.C.

The search began in D.C., where Royster filed a missing person’s report and the Public Defender Service sent investigators to Union Station. They had no luck.

It continued in Charleston, W.Va., where Flythe’s bus journey began. Madill filed a missing person’s report there, too, and said an officer had added Flythe’s name to a national database of missing people. She also reached out to local media contacts, public defenders and a city councilman to put their community on lookout. But no success there, either.

They turned their attention to Cleveland, where Flythe was supposed to transfer to a different bus. Attorneys reached out to local police, public defenders and Greyhound officials. A detective who the local police department assigned to the case contacted men’s shelters and hospitals. Days passed without any news.

But then almost a week after he disappeared, on Feb. 2, investigators from public defenders offices in Cleveland went to the Greyhound bus station and found surveillance footage of someone they believe to be Flythe, standing near the ticket line. They said he probably boarded a train with multiple stops toward Washington. He was supposed to transfer again in Baltimore. They felt hopeful for the first time in six days.

But that was his last sighting, and now, three weeks since Flythe was supposed to arrive home, Madill and Royster believe he could be anywhere from Cleveland to D.C.

“My entire family is very hurt and concerned and disheartened,” Royster said. “He already did his time.”

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.