For a week, U.S. marshals staked out the trailer park at the swampy edge of the world. They watched as an old man with a white ponytail, glasses and beard slowly shuffled around his Melbourne, Fla., mobile home. The name on the mailbox said William Harold Cox, but the marshals knew better.
After seven days of surveillance, they confronted Cox with a mug shot of a much younger man, dated Feb. 26, 1959.
“He said he hadn’t seen that guy in a long time,” said Maj. Tod Goodyear of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, which assisted in the stakeout. “Then he admitted it and basically said, ‘You got me.'”
As the marshals suspected, the old man was actually Frank Freshwaters, a felon on the lam for 56 years. His arrest on Monday brings to an end a half-century saga that reads like a Hollywood script, complete with a deadly crime, dramatic prison escape and a cunning trap to catch a wanted fugitive. The tale even includes a tie-in to the movie it already resembles: “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Freshwaters’s story is one of spurned second chances. Back in the summer of 1957, he was a 20-year-old kid with a full head of dark hair and a lead foot. One night in July, he was speeding through Ohio when he hit and killed a pedestrian. Freshwaters was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison only to have the sentence suspended, according to the Associated Press.
But Freshwaters squandered his good fortune. He violated probation by climbing back into the driver’s seat and was locked up in February 1959 in the Ohio State Reformatory.
It would prove to be a fitting setting for Freshwaters. After its closing in 1990, the reformatory would be used as a set for “The Shawshank Redemption,” a 1994 movie about a wrongfully convicted man who escapes from prison.
Freshwaters never escaped from the reformatory, however. Instead, he secured a transfer to a nearby “honor camp,” according to the AP. It was from there that Freshwaters disappeared on Sept. 30, 1959.
The 22-year-old didn’t disappear without a trace, however. In 1975, he was arrested in Charleston, W.Va., after allegedly threatening his ex-wife. He was found hiding under a sink in his house, the AP reported. At the time, investigators said Freshwaters had fled to Florida and obtained identification and a Social Security number under the alias William Harold Cox. Then he moved to West Virginia, where he drove a mobile library for the state government and worked as a trucker.
But Freshwaters caught a second break. The governor of West Virginia refused to extradite him to Ohio. Freshwaters was freed from jail and disappeared once again.
It now appears as if he made his way down to Florida, where he continued to live under his alias, even receiving Social Security checks. Back in Ohio, meanwhile, his file gathered dust until earlier this year, when a deputy marshal reopened the 56-year-old case.
It wasn’t exactly hard to track down the aging criminal. A cursory search of public records shows a 78-year-old William H. Cox living on Jones Road just outside Melbourne. (Freshwaters is actually 79.)
Marshals and deputies staked out the trailer park, surrounded by Palmetto trees. To confirm his identity, they concocted a plan to obtain the old man’s fingerprints. Undercover agents persuaded Freshwaters to sign some forms, which were then tested for fingerprints. They matched the prints on record from 58 years earlier in Ohio.
Finally, marshals confronted the old man with his mug shot from half a century earlier. Freshwaters looked nothing like the young man in the photo, but he didn’t fight hard to maintain his charade.
Authorities took the senior citizen into custody. During a court appearance on Tuesday, a wheelchair-bound Freshwaters waived extradition, freeing the way for him to return to Ohio and finish the up-to-18 years remaining on his manslaughter sentence. Barring another escape, he could be as old as 97 upon his release.
As far as second lives go, Freshwaters’s Florida hideout was no beachfront home in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, the location where the wrongfully convicted character Andy Dufresne settles down after escaping from Shawshank. But it was far better than an Ohio prison.
“It’s a nice place to kind of hang out by yourself if you don’t want people to know you’re there,” Goodyear said.