PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – A man who escaped from a Georgia prison in 1981 assumed a new identity in South Florida, where he ran his own business and avoided any trouble with the law -- that is, until he was caught Wednesday, Local 10 News has learned.
U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden said Willie Lee Austin, 60, was arrested at his Pompano Beach business, L.J. Office Furniture Installers Inc. on McNab Road.
"He had a good run. But the downside to that run is that now he has to go back to Georgia and serve more time in prison," Golden said.
Golden said Austin had been a fugitive for 34 years until U.S. marshals in Georgia learned that Austin might be living in South Florida under an alias, so marshals began comparing driver's license photographs to Austin's 1981 booking photo.
That led marshals to an apartment on Northwest 36th Street in Lauderdale Lakes, where Austin, who was 26 at the time of his escape, had been living under the assumed identity of "Larry Jackson," Golden said.
"It seems as though he came to Florida and either stole somebody's ID or created a fake identification," Golden told Local 10 News crime specialist John Turchin.
Austin was serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery when he escaped from Central State Prison in Georgia.
Records obtained by Local 10 show that Austin's phony persona was a registered voter -- his party affiliation lists him as a Democrat -- and had been living in Broward County since at least 1985. He also held a state fishing license and had a local cellphone and home phone.
A check of the Florida Department of State Division of Corporation records lists Larry Jackson as president of L.J. Office Furniture Installers Inc. The business was filed with the state in 2005.
Golden said Austin initially claimed to be Jackson when marshals confronted him outside his business, but Austin soon confessed, saying, "You got me."
People who knew Austin were shocked by the news.
"Not in my wildest dreams would I (have) thought he's a bank robber," Dawn Boulis said. "I mean, he's a great guy. He would give you the shirt off his back to help you."
During the holidays, Austin often volunteered his time feeding the homeless, friends said.
"If straightening someone's life out is what jail should be about, I say, yeah, he has," Dave DeGraaf "He has straightened his life out, and he's been a tremendous asset to the community."
Austin apparently never changed his birthday when he assumed his new identity, another clue that led marshals to him, Golden said.
Broward County jail records show that Austin was being held without bond Friday. Golden said Austin will be extradited back to Georgia, where he'll likely face additional charges related to his escape.
"He had a good run," Golden said.
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