- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. (AP) - As the owner of a Pompano Beach office furniture business, with a silver 2008 Corvette in his garage and a reputation for generosity and kindness, Larry Jackson seemed the epitome of a solid citizen.

But what he could not do was outrun his past.

After nearly 34 years as a fugitive, the 60-year-old businessman was arrested under his real name of Willie Lee Austin, a convicted armed robber who walked out of a Georgia prison on a three-day Christmas furlough and never returned.

Austin acknowledges his identity, and admits he is guilty of fleeing prison after serving four and a half years of a 15-year sentence. But, he said in an interview in the Broward County Jail, “I had to do it.

“The love of my life was being abused by another man and I had to protect her,” he said. “I had no choice.”

Austin said he would waive extradition and agree to return to Georgia to meet his fate. Although he says he is innocent of the armed robbery of which he was convicted in 1977, he fears that he may have to complete his sentence and do more time for the escape.

“Georgia will get their revenge,” he said.

Friends and relatives here, which include two adult children, say they are shocked by the revelation of Austin’s true identity. They hope to make the case to Georgia authorities that the man they knew as Jackson - hiding in plain sight - has paid his debt to society through the life he led in South Florida.

“He is a very loving father, he is in my life, and I thank him for my being the person I am,” said his daughter, Shermona Austin Mercer, 27, of Sunrise. “He touched a lot of peoples’ hearts. He’s a good man. The past is the past.”

As part of his life here, Austin regularly gave food to the homeless, hired ex-convicts and donated to the local Fraternal Order of Police, he said.

“Just an all-around nice guy,” said Dawn Boulis, a friend of five years. “He would do anything for you.”

A resident of Lauderdale Lakes, he paid his taxes, bought a fishing license, registered to vote and even received a few driving infractions: two speeding tickets, and one citation for following too closely, the last offense in 1991, according to state records.

“He’s been an exemplary citizen,” said Dave DeGraaf, who works with Boulis at a lighting firm in the same McNab Road business park where Austin had his LJ Office Furniture. “Sending him back to jail would be nonsense.”

What happens to Austin next is unclear.

“We anticipate working with the local (prosecutor) in Bibb County (site of Central State Prison) to assess what charges, if any, might be appropriate for Willie Lee Austin,” said Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan in an email.

Austin was 21 years old on Feb. 24, 1977, when he was stopped by police in Columbus, Georgia, for making an illegal left turn, he said. Soon afterward, he found himself facing an armed robbery charge for the holdup almost three years earlier.

According to a statement Austin gave police, he was walking down the street on March 22, 1974, when two men picked him up in a black and white Cadillac. The driver parked near the Mann Finance Company, and all three went inside, Austin told police.

Once inside, one of the men pulled a gun, announced a stick-up, and ordered Austin to jump over the counter and take cash from the register, Austin said.

Austin, then 18, said he did what he was told. The take was $400 from the register and $110 from the company owner’s wallet, according to the case file in the Muscogee County prosecutor’s office. With a policewoman on his heels, Austin dropped the bag of money as he and the others ran down the street, he said in his statement.

Tried before a jury in April 1977, Austin was convicted and sent to prison. At what was then called the Central Correctional Institution in Macon, Ga., he became a trusty - a prisoner given special privileges for good behavior. On Christmas Day in 1981, a Friday, he was granted a weekend pass.

On his release, Austin said he met with his girlfriend - the same woman who he said was being abused and who he needed to protect - and then eventually, he made his way to South Florida.

The girlfriend would join him later and the two would maintain a long-term relationship. Austin Mercer is their daughter.

Preparing for a life on the lam, Austin said he first came up with a new name. Larry was an older brother, he said. The surname Jackson “I just pulled out of the air because it was a common name,” Austin said.

Austin found work as Larry Jackson, and learned the office furniture business working for a Miramar firm before starting his own company a decade ago; last year his company did $300,000 in sales, he said.

During his three decades in South Florida, Austin said he traveled to Georgia and rural Alabama four times, after the deaths of his parents and two brothers. He also raised two children, his girlfriend’s son who is now 36, and Austin Mercer. He said he never told his children of his past “because I didn’t want to burden them.”

Once the children were grown, he lost no sleep worrying that he would be arrested. “I didn’t care,” he said.

The moment he always knew might come occurred Aug. 5.

In a routine review of cold cases, the Georgia prison officials came up with a possible alias for Austin. Following the new lead with the U.S. Marshals Service Florida Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force, investigators linked that name to Austin’s residence, a small apartment on Northwest 36th Street in Lauderdale Lakes.

That led to his business and a warehouse, where deputy marshals, along with Broward Sheriff’s deputies, took him into custody without incident.

“We’re police officers, and when we have wanted felons, we try to arrest them,” said Tony Schilling, a supervisor with the U.S. Marshals Service. “If he had not escaped way back when, this would be behind him. That was his decision to leave.”

Austin’s relatives, as well as friends Boulis and DeGraaf, say they are willing to testify to his character in an effort to mitigate his punishment.

About two years ago, said Austin Mercer, “I was hanging with the wrong crowd, on the wrong track and he stepped in to see that I did not end up in jail or get pregnant.

“He took away my car,” said Austin Mercer, who works as a security guard. “He was there for me.”

Whatever happens next, the man known here as Larry Jackson will be missed, friends say.

“We are all shocked by this,” Boulis said. “I want to see him dealt with fairly. Did he make himself a better person? Yes. He was not a burden on society.

“I know that I’ll never call him Willie. He’ll always be Larry to me.”

___

Information from: Sun Sentinel , https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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