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What you need to know for 04/25/2017

20 years after escape, O’Keefe recounts time ‘on the lam’

20 years after escape, O’Keefe recounts time ‘on the lam’

Joel O’Keefe was the subject of one of the most extensive manhunts in Capital Region history in 1994
20 years after escape, O’Keefe recounts time ‘on the lam’
Joel O'Keefe is moved to a state police car outside Troop G headquarters in Loudonville on Oct. 7, 1994, one day after his capture in Bennington, Vt.

Timeline

Fri. Sept. 23: While returning to the Saratoga County jail from a Washington County Court arraignment on weapons and marijuana charges, O’Keefe bolts from an unmarked state police car near routes 50 and 67 in Ballston. The manhunt begins with a 3-square-mile search area.

Sat. Sept. 24: Police expand the search to a 7-square-mile area that stretches towards Malta.

Sun. Sept. 25: Reports of a possible sighting extend the search into Malta. According to O’Keefe, he was in Salem.

Mon. Sept. 26: Police reveal the police car O’Keefe was in was not locked, he was not wearing a seat belt and he was cuffed in front of his body instead of behind his back.

Tues. Sept. 27: Police search around the Geyser Crest area in Saratoga Springs after a reported sighting. A Jeep stolen Sept. 24 from a Saratoga Springs driveway surfaces in Salem.

Wed. Sept. 28: An Air Force helicopter is brought in, later replaced by one from the U.S. Customs Service, to assist in an aerial search.

Thurs. Sept. 29: Bad weather: O’Keefe later said he stole a heavy coat to ward off the cold. The search continues in the Milton, Ballston and Saratoga Springs areas.

Fri. Sept. 30: An effort to bait O’Keefe with a slow-moving freight train proves unsuccessful.

Sun. Oct. 2: The search moves into Wilton, in case O’Keefe was heading toward the Adirondacks.

Mon. Oct. 3: Police reveal O’Keefe had been questioned about unsolved homicides in Saratoga and Washington counties. O’Keefe continues to maintain he had no involvement.

Tues., Oct. 4: The search moves into the Adirondack Park after a reported sighting in Corinth. O’Keefe is in Vermont.

Thurs. Oct. 6: O’Keefe is captured late at night when a Subway restaurant clerk calls Bennington police after the fugitive places an order. Earlier in the day, New York State Police announced it planned to scale back the search.

Sources: Gazette archives; O'Keefe interview

Truth be told, Joel O’Keefe isn’t even a big fan of meatball subs. He hasn’t had one in 20 years, since that fateful October 1994 night in Bennington, Vt.

“It was never my favorite food, just a convenient item to order,” he said.

It was making that Thursday night order at a Subway restaurant that got O’Keefe captured Oct. 6, 1994, two weeks after he escaped from state police custody. His apprehension capped 14 days of angst for Capital Region residents — there were 400 reported “sightings” — and 14 days of frustration for law enforcement, as his arrest ended one of the most extensive manhunts in Capital Region history.

“I should have gone to New Mexico,” O’Keefe told Vermont authorities after his capture.

O’Keefe is in the Attica Correctional Facility now, up for parole again this week. Three thwarted escape attempts in prison, as well as numerous other infractions while locked up, will likely keep him incarcerated.

“One can be quite well-prepared for life on the outside, which I feel I am after over 20

long years and this being my fourth parole appearance, yet still get ‘hit’ by the board,” O’Keefe said recently in a series of letters exchanged with The Gazette (the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision rejected a request for an in-person interview). “While I would very much like to go home, they’ll likely hit me with more time.”

Had O’Keefe never jumped out of a state police car and kept a relatively clean record in prison, he probably would have been a free man by now.

“I would’ve done a whole lot less time, perhaps only five to 10 years instead of over 20,” O’Keefe said. “It has turned out to be a poor choice in the long run.”

And a long run he had.

On Sept. 23, 1994, while returning to the Saratoga County jail after an arraignment on weapons and marijuana charges in Washington County Court, O’Keefe bolted from an unmarked — and unlocked — state police car near routes 50 and 67 in Ballston. According to authorities, O’Keefe “ran as fast as he could, as far as he could.”

O’Keefe, then a 34-year-old whose criminal record dated back to 1981 in California, was also facing first-degree burglary, larceny, sexual abuse and unlawful imprisonment charges after taking a woman at knifepoint in her Round Lake home. He made the woman’s young daughter stay in a closet.

Police transporting him back to jail made three critical errors: The car was unlocked, O’Keefe was not seat-belted in and his hands were cuffed in the front.

“The two who were transporting me to and from court that day were decent guys and since it was a long drive to the courthouse they let me ride cuffed in the front after I suggested that it would be quite uncomfortable to ride otherwise,” O’Keefe said. “My ’94 escape was truly a ‘spur of the moment’ thing, as we were just sitting there at the red light and I decided to make my exit.”

The investigators accompanying O’Keefe were later suspended for 30 days without pay.

“It was embarrassing,” said Lloyd R. “Bud” Wilson Jr., a state police major and Troop G commander at the time. “We took responsibility.”

Retired state police Capt. William Sickinger recently scoffed at O’Keefe’s “spur of the moment” assertion, stating the fugitive reached out to relatives and had previously stashed cash on their properties.

“I’m certain he was a man of opportunity,” Sickinger said, “but there was a plan — always a plan.”

It was a long, tense 14 days for authorities and a nervous public. Wilson, now retired from the state police, said last week authorities believed O’Keefe was involved in other unsolved crimes, including murder, an allegation O’Keefe denies. No charges were ever filed against him in those other cases.

“We suspected that he was involved in many, many other things,” Wilson said. “That was our biggest concern. He was a really, really bad guy.”

For two weeks, state police, aided by local agencies and, at times, federal authorities, combed an ever-widening search area. Many residents were on edge, but some cast O’Keefe as a sort of outlaw folk hero. T-shirts were made in his honor, and some said they would leave food out for him.

“As for people seeing me as a folk hero: Well, maybe so, but there have been lots of folks who are far more rightly deserving of this title than I,” O’Keefe said. “I really don’t see myself as any sort of ‘hero’ at all.”

Theresa Hempel of Argyle still stays in touch with O’Keefe, who was a friend of the family.

“My parents worshipped him,” she said. “I had two brothers killed in car accidents when they were young. I guess Joel reminded [my father] of them. He seems like a real kind-hearted person to me.”

O’Keefe said that on Day 3 on the run he walked into an old barn in Salem, shook the dust off an old heavy coat he saw hanging on the timber and stole it to ward off the cold. More importantly, he said, he found a pair of bolt cutters to finally remove his handcuffs. O’Keefe made his way to Bennington, where he said he bought clothes at a Salvation Army store. He also did some sightseeing, as if just another tourist.

“Bennington was a great little town to hide out in,” O’Keefe said. “It’s full of Revolutionary War history, and I walked among the tombstones of soldiers killed in the late 1770s in the old cemetery. I also visited the 300-foot obelisk. ... My lair was an old coach house in the historic district.

“I planned to only stay for a short time and was contemplating my next move.”

That move never came. O’Keefe stopped in a Subway restaurant, and a clerk who had seen him earlier in the day on television called authorities.

O’Keefe was arrested without incident; the following month he was transported back to Saratoga County, shackled and then some, and accompanied by five investigators. The doors were locked.

O’Keefe said he takes no pride in being on the run as long as he was in 1994.

“For one, two weeks on the ‘lam’ really isn’t very long,” he said. “Also, while it took a bit of resourcefulness to be able to do it, if I’d instead used that same resourcefulness to do something ‘legit’ I would’ve been much better off today.”

The Argyle man’s time in prison has been marked by three escape attempts and two dozen other infractions, adding hard time.

“I've been ‘down,’ as they say, for 20 long years now and I’ve definitely done much harder time than I otherwise would have, had I not spent so many years in the ‘Special Housing Unit’ (‘SHU’) in solitary or segregation as a result of my escape back in ’94, as well as a later attempt,” O’Keefe said.

“Looking back, I would say I didn’t exercise good judgment because I ended up both doing many years — about 18 altogether — in the SHU, plus I had more total years added to my sentence.”

At his previous parole hearing in August 2012 at the Elmira Correctional Facility, O’Keefe told a parole commission that “even though I was actually, you know, convicted of what is technically considered a violent crime, I don’t have any violence on my record.” Predictably, that did not go over well.

“Listen, burglary is a VFO [violent felony offense] and sodomy, I think your victims would agree, forcing a women to perform sodomy is a violent act in anybody’s book,” one of the two commissioners replied.

With time tacked on for his escape attempts in 2000 and 2001, there is a possibility O’Keefe could remain in prison until July 2023 — provided he is not convicted of any other crimes. He would be 63 years old.

Wilson said he hopes O’Keefe never gets out. If he does, though, the first thing the former man on the run would like to do is have a home-cooked meal. O’Keefe has a dream menu: eggplant Parmesan, stir-fried veggies, rice, lobster, scallops and shrimp, with a garden salad and pie for dessert.

He is not interested in fast food.

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