In 1973, Ronald Carnes sneaked away from prison and disappeared into plain sight, disguising himself for 41 years.
He adopted a pair of fake identities and lived an upright life, volunteering in hospitals, helping out at boys’ clubs, hiding his secret past.
By the time he got caught, snared by facial recognition software in 2014, he almost felt relief. So at age 69, he put on an old prison jumpsuit and accepted the idea that he might die behind bars. As an elderly convict, he taught several of his fellow inmates to read.
But now Carnes is paroled at age 72, truly free for the first time in decades. He credits his early release to the same principles that kept him concealed as an escapee for so long: Work hard, be polite, help out when you can.
From a halfway house in Chapel Hill, he admires his new state identification card – the first to carry his legal name since 1970. The chance at a fresh start has Carnes feeling giddy.
“I see a lot of people pass me by and smile,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”
Carnes came to North Carolina in the late 1960s, a volunteer for the Black Panther Party, assigned to a free breakfast program for underprivileged youth.
In September of 1970, he and a colleague Carnes described as a “hothead” walked into the Li’l General Food Store in Winston-Salem. Carnes can hardly recall the details, but court records describe him telling the clerk “This is a holdup” and grabbing cash from the register while the other man held a pistol. They took $83, the clerk’s handbag and a few bottles of wine, getting arrested shortly afterward.
From the witness stand, the clerk called Carnes “the colored boy,” and someone wrote “Black Panthers” on the back of his court paperwork. For his crime, a first offense, Carnes got a 15- to 20-year sentence.
Four decades later, Carnes said he feels deep remorse for his youthful mistake, even asking for the clerk’s address so he could write to apologize. But at the time, he felt cheated, and after waiting three years without parole, he sneaked away from the now-closed prison in Huntersville without anyone seeing him leave. Details of how he managed this remain fuzzy.
In his early days as a fugitive, Carnes found new clothes at a Salvation Army and waited tables until he’d earned enough for bus fare, fleeing to Chicago. But once there, he hatched a plan inside a public library, searching microfilm for a new identity, hunting for somebody no one would remember.
After days of searching, he stopped on news of a 1948 fire in Chicago that killed a 5-year-old boy named Lewis Vance and two other children. He sent away for a copy of Vance’s birth certificate, and once he received it, he used that information to obtain a Social Security number in Vance’s name. Later, he hunted down a second name, settling on a 5-year-old who died in a 1944 car accident: William Cox.
From there, he developed his fictional personae.
Over the next four decades, he moved to New Orleans and worked in French Quarter restaurants. He skipped over to Beverly Hills and found work in a country club. He took classes and learned to install digital telephone systems, getting a job with GTE that took him from Ohio to California to Puerto Rico.
In all those years, he volunteered in churches and libraries – always as Bill Cox or Lewis Vance, winning friends, keeping his nose clean.
“In the years that followed, Mr. Carnes would lead a remarkably inoffensive life,” wrote the federal public defender who argued for Carnes’ release when he was finally caught.
He knew capture would come one day. When marshals caught him applying for two different drivers’ licenses in Iowa, then dug deeper and discovered his secret, he made them a pot of coffee. Once he arrived at Bertie Correctional in Windsor, younger inmates treated him like a celebrity.
Character gets you through
But Carnes went to work. He took computer and math classes. He worked as a custodian and strove to be top-notch. He got moved to minimum “honor grade” custody in Orange County, and a friend on the outside sent him materials to help other prisoners with their reading.
“In prison,” he said, “your character is going to get you through.”
His parole came after almost three years, half the term he might have served. In the halfway house, he bunks with six other ex-prisoners, progress after rooming with more than 60.
So now he does chores in the morning, goes to the library and attends Quaker meetings in Chapel Hill. His time there has no cap, and Carnes seemed in no hurry to leave. A few weeks ago, he took a garbage bag and cleaned all the litter off the halfway house’s block.
“If the neighbors start associating this place with trash,” he said, “that’s the end of this place.”
As he speaks, Carnes reaches into his wallet and pulls out a state identification card, obtained legally, the first he’s had since 1970.
“That’s wild,” he said, admiring it. “And it’s got my name on it.”