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Joel O'Keefe, escapee who put Capital Region on edge in 1994, to be released soon

Joel O'Keefe, escapee who put Capital Region on edge in 1994, to be released soon

He led law enforcement on one of most extensive manhunts in region's history
Joel O'Keefe, escapee who put Capital Region on edge in 1994, to be released soon
Joel O’Keefe.
Photographer: Provided

Joel O’Keefe, who evaded police during a two-week manhunt in 1994, is expected to be released later this month, after more than two decades in custody, according to state corrections officials.

O'Keefe, now 57, is to be released as soon as Nov. 25 and plans to live in Washington County, officials said.

O'Keefe served 23 years of his up-to-29-year sentence for a series of crimes that included burglary and escape. His release comes as he hits his mandated conditional release date.

Disciplinary infractions delayed his release, but no further delays are in the offing, officials said. He is to be under parole supervision until at least 2023.

On Sept. 23, 1994, while returning to 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. He was not wearing a seat belt, and his hands were cuffed in front of him.

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

He was later arrested in a Subway shop in Bennington, Vermont.

O’Keefe’s capture in October 1994 put an end to 14 days of angst for Capital Region residents — there were 400 reported sightings — and two weeks of frustration for law enforcement leading one of the most extensive manhunts in Capital Region history.

O'Keefe later received extra time for two prison escape attempts. In 2000, he was found with a wooden hook and a sheet that he intended to use to scale a wall. A year later, he showed what appeared to be a gun to correction officers. They pulled their own weapons on him and determined his to be fake, records show.

O'Keefe has been denied parole multiple times, including in 2012 and 2014. 

He exchanged multiple letters with The Daily Gazette in 2014 and expressed some regret for his escape decisions.

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

While it was unclear what O'Keefe's current plans are beyond a return to Washington County, he told the parole board in 2012 that a friend said he could stay with her. His sister also indicated at the time that, if he needed a place to stay, her place was an option.

His failed bid for release at that time was accompanied by multiple letters of support from his family.

That same bid also saw O'Keefe taken to task by a parole commissioner when O'Keefe tried to suggest that his criminal behavior wasn't violent.

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

As for his plans for release, O'Keefe told the parole board in 2012 that a family friend had offered him a construction job in Albany. He also expressed a desire to return to job skills he knew prior to his prison time, like horticulture and agriculture.

"Yeah, I used to have beehives — used to be a beekeeper," O'Keefe said in response to a commissioner's question at the previous parole hearing. "Used to make maple syrup. Used to do all that kind of stuff that people do when they live off the land or live in the country, you know. I have a lot of experience as far as that kind of thing."

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