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Man speaks from prison about debt he hopes he's paid to society

Willie Lee Austin hid from authorities in South Florida for 34 years

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A man who hid from authorities in South Florida for 34 years spoke from prison about the debt he hopes he's paid to society.

"And the people that really need me, I can't help them no more," Willie Lee Austin told the ABC affiliate in Atlanta.

Austin wiped away tears as he spoke about the family he had to leave behind in Broward County to serve the rest of his time in a Georgia prison.

"One bad decision don't have to follow you for the rest of your life," he said.

Austin was better known as Larry Jackson to friends and family members in his Lauderdale Lake community. For years he ran his business L-J Office Furniture, and for years, authorities said, he hid from them.

Austin was serving a 15-year sentence for a 1977 armed robbery, in which he denied details of his involvement. He walked off from a furlough in 1981 to pursue the woman he loved who was then in an abusive relationship. She followed him to South Florida where he raised a son and a daughter, kids who had no idea he was a fugitive until U.S. marshals came to take him away.

"I know Larry Jackson," his daughter, Shermona Mercer, told Local 10 News' Amy Viteri by phone. "And what he's done all these years for me and for everybody."

Mercer said her dad gave back to his community, fed the homeless and fittingly, gave others a second opportunity.

"He hired ex-convicts that nobody would give a chance to," Mercer said.

She said she wants her father to know she loves him and his past is in the past.

Austin said he hopes he has given back what he owed society for walking off before finishing his sentence.

"But if I did what God asked me to do and I did good things in life. Then I think somebody should recognize me for the good I did and not just the bad I did," Austin said.

A Georgia parole official said the Department of Corrections will compute his sentence and then can determine when he is eligible for parole.

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