COLUMBUS, OHIO — Former fugitive Frank Freshwaters turns 80 on April 18. He suffers from "very severe arthritis" and hip pain, which essentially confined him to a wheelchair last summer. And before his high-profile arrest in Melbourne, he was collecting Social Security benefits under a different name.
What would happen to Freshwaters if he was released from prison? The Ohio Adult Parole Authority asked numerous questions on the topic during his parole hearing Thursday, and Chairman Andre Imbrogno summed it up this way:
"How does he survive?" Imbrogno asked.
Freshwaters' four-member support team — bolstered by other relatives and supporters — traveled to downtown Columbus and fielded those concerns from the 11-member board. The final answers won't become apparent until on or after April 24, when he walks free of prison.
After deliberating, the Adult Parole Authority voted to release Freshwaters on parole. He will be supervised for five years, preferably in West Virginia. Numerous details will be hashed out in the next 60 days, said JoEllen Smith, an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman.
Gordon Beggs, his defense attorney, led the pro-Freshwaters testimony Thursday. Shirl Cheetham, a close friend from Palm Bay, sat at the witness table on Beggs' right. At his left were Freshwaters' sons, Jim Cox and Jeff Lloyd, who offered to transport their father and "make sure he gets set up properly."
Cox, who lives in West Virginia, told board members he can "very easily" make his four-bedroom, two-story home accessible for someone using a walker. He lives there with his wife, daughter and grandson.
"I've got a grandson at home that my daddy would be a good influence on," Cox said. Lloyd, lives about three hours away in Akron, Ohio.
Freshwaters lost the ability to effectively walk while he was incarcerated after his May 2015 arrest, Beggs told the parole board. In fact, when Beggs first met Freshwaters after he was extradited to Ohio, he was basically confined to a wheelchair.
"He could walk maybe 5, 6, 7 feet, enough to go to the bathroom. That was it," Beggs said.
Nurses have taught him how use a walker during twice-a-day afternoon exercise sessions at the Southeastern Correctional Complex in Nelsonville, Ohio. Freshwaters lives in the Hocking Unit, an annex that houses about 450 older offenders.
Upon his release, Beggs said Freshwaters will be medically evaluated for physical therapy.
During Thursday's hearing, Cheetham also offered to take in Freshwaters and convert her four-bedroom home into a five-bedroom home. One of the bathrooms has an oversized door, and she planned to install a shower bar.
Overcome with emotion, Cheetham had to compose herself before addressing the board — Freshwaters, whom she knew as William Cox, was the best man at her wedding.
Back in 1958, Freshwaters pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter for killing pedestrian Eugene Flynt while speeding in Akron. His sentence of one to 20 years in prison was suspended in lieu of probation, but he violated those terms and got sent to the Ohio State Reformatory in 1959.
He escaped from a prison honor camp later that year, assumed a new identity, and lived a low-key life for decades until the U.S. Marshals Service tracked him down in Melbourne. His arrest was "the longest capture" in the history of the agency, which dates to 1789, said Pete Elliott, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio.
Parole board members asked numerous questions about Freshwaters' Social Security benefits. Beggs said Freshwaters got a common law name change and a new Social Security number as William Cox in 1959 in Florida.
Freshwaters drove trucks for several large chemical companies and drove a mobile library to under-served areas of West Virginia as a state employee. After working many years as an independent trucker, he retired early on Social Security in the late 1990s to care for his ailing wife, Brenda, who was afflicted with cancer, Beggs told the parole board. She died in 1999.
Beggs said Freshwaters never collected benefits under his original name, and "his Social Security is 100 percent legit." However, Beggs said he did not know whether Freshwaters will continue to claim those benefits after his release.
During the hearing, Brad Gessner, chief counsel with the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, accused Freshwaters of escape, ID fraud and Social Security fraud.
“I’ve worked in white-collar crime cases, too. And what I’ve always been taught is, bad money can’t ever become good money. So when the criminal —through their criminal enterprise — earns something, that can’t be washed and cleaned and laundered into good money,” Gessner said.
“Frank Freshwaters did not earn this money. And he did all of this as a fugitive on the run,” he said.
Freshwaters met the parents of State Sen. Thad. Altman after he moved from West Virginia to Florida in 1987. Beggs said Freshwaters bought a trailer and served as an on-property watchman for the family's rural lands off the Sarno Extension.
If Freshwaters can regain sufficient mobility, the Altmans have offered to let him return to his trailer. Beggs reminded the parole board that the family submitted a letter indicating as such.
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April 1936: Frank Freshwaters is born in Akron, Ohio.
July 1957: Freshwaters kills pedestrian Eugene Flynt in a traffic crash in Akron
April 1958: Freshwaters pleads guilty to second-degree manslaughter. He is sentenced to five years of probation in lieu of one to 20 years in prison.
February 1959: Citing probation violations, a judge sends Freshwaters to the Ohio State Reformatory, the prison later made famous by the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”
September 1959: Freshwaters escapes from a prison honor farm.
October 1975: Freshwaters is arrested near Charleston, West Virginia.
March 1976: West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore refuses to let Ohio authorities extradite Freshwaters.
May 2015: The U.S. Marshals Service directs Freshwaters’ arrest at his Melbourne trailer, and he is extradited to the Ohio prison system.
Thursday: The Ohio Adult Parole Authority orders Freshwaters’ release on or after April 24. He will be paroled for five years, preferably in West Virginia.