Caught by Internet's Long Arm; Murderer Fled Prison in 1970 and Buried Identity


by David Zucchino, The Los Angeles Times

Daryl McCartor met Tonya Hudkins three years ago through a telephone dating service. Their first date was at McDonald's. On their second date, they went ballroom dancing.

Within months, they were married. It was Daryl's second marriage, Tonya's third.

They were inseparable, a trucker and an insurance agent, both in their 50s. They went bowling and horseback riding, rode in Daryl's Kenilworth truck. Daryl called Tonya his "little ol' country girl," though she was a mother of four and a grandmother of three infants.

It all came crashing down one Sunday in May, after breakfast at Jolly Pirate Donuts and a family swim. Plainclothes police approached Tonya in a health club parking lot. As her husband, son and daughter-in-law stood blinking in the sunshine, the officers told them Tonya wasn't who she said she was.

Her real name, they said, was Margo Freshwater. In 1966, at age 18, she had taken part in a killing spree across three states that left three people dead. Convicted of murder and sentenced to 99 years, Freshwater escaped from a Tennessee prison in 1970. Then she vanished.

And now, after 32 years, the law had finally caught up with her, hiding in plain sight in her hometown. Not even her husband and children knew the truth.

"Well," Daryl said later, "it was like we'd walked out of a movie theater and now we were in the movie."

In some ways, it is easier than ever to disappear in an America of transient populations and suburban anonymity. More than 12,000 fugitives are on the loose at any given time. But it is also easier to track someone in an age of computer databases and Internet connections in which no scrap of identifying data truly ever dies.

It was certainly possible for Margo Freshwater to deceive her new husband and three grown children. And when they finally accepted the cold truth that the woman they loved was a stranger named Margo Freshwater, they were angry--not at her but at the police for destroying the blissful life she had built with them.

She may have once been a convicted murderer, but she was also Phil Hudkins' caring mother and Daryl McCartor's devoted wife and the doting grandmother of Casey Henry's 19-month-old boy, A.J.

"My mom is a victim," said Tonya's youngest son, Timothy Hudkins, 22, who knows her only as the mother who worked two jobs, always had supper on the table and drove him to Little League games.

Margo Freshwater was careful to scrub away the residue of her previous life. She changed her name. She applied for a new Social Security number. On job applications, she invented a fictitious high school. She managed to never once be fingerprinted. She never contacted family or friends. And her siblings unwittingly helped by having her declared legally dead in 1984.

Freshwater thought of almost everything.

Tracking a Cold Case

Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification was 4 years old in October 1970 when Margo Freshwater and another inmate scaled a fence at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville and disappeared. Freshwater had served just 18 months.

By the time Costas was assigned the case in 1993, it was cold. The FBI had tracked Freshwater to Baltimore after the escape, but quickly lost her trail. The agency's only solid lead had come from Freshwater's captured fellow escapee, who revealed in 1971 that Margo had used the alias "Tonya."

Costas had been assigned to dig up Margo's foot-and-a-half-thick file only because the TV show "America's Most Wanted" was preparing an episode on Freshwater, and had asked Tennessee police for background information. But as he reviewed the paperwork, he was fascinated: An 18-year-old unwed mother from Columbus and a 38-year-old married lawyer from Memphis had, for reasons never fully explained, embarked on a crime spree that left dead a liquor store clerk in Memphis, a cab driver in Mississippi and a grocery clerk in Florida.

Freshwater had just given up her infant son for adoption in Columbus in 1966 when she went to Memphis to hire a lawyer for her boyfriend, Alfred Schlereth, jailed there for armed robbery. She contacted attorney Glenn Nash, later described by his own lawyer as "crazy as hell."

Schlereth, interviewed by Costas in 1994, said Nash and Freshwater had planned to smuggle guns into the courtroom and free him. Instead, the two became lovers--and then killers.

In court, a prosecutor described them as "Bonnie and Clyde." Courts in three states found Nash legally insane. He was confined to psychiatric hospitals until his release in 1983.

Two Mississippi juries deadlocked on charges that Freshwater was an accessory to the murder of cabdriver C.C. Surratt, and she was never charged in the killing of the grocery clerk. But a Memphis jury convicted her of murdering liquor store clerk Hillman Robbins. She stayed at the front of the store while Nash took the clerk to the back and shot him five times in the head.

Freshwater testified that Nash had threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him during the three-week rampage. But witnesses testified that Freshwater had several opportunities to flee--including a 30-minute interlude when she tried on clothes in a department store while Nash waited outside.

Freshwater testified that she had sex with Nash after the liquor store murder.

"You were intimate with him that night, right after Mr. Robbins, that poor man, had been shot and killed?" the prosecutor asked.

"Under the circumstances," Freshwater replied, "I didn't have any other choice."

It took the jury just three hours to convict her.

A few weeks after her escape, Freshwater rolled back into Ohio on a train from Baltimore. She settled in Ashland, 70 miles north of Columbus. She was 22, alone and pregnant, living in a boardinghouse and working as a waitress. She called herself Tonya Myers.

Nine months and one day after her escape, she gave birth to a son, Phil. Police have not determined who the father was. Over the next three decades, Tonya would marry three men and give birth to two more children. She worked as a bartender, country club manager, insurance agent and real estate agent.

She became Tonya Hudkins when she married a trucker named Joseph Hudkins. After Hudkins died in 1988, Freshwater moved to Columbus, working in an insurance office just four miles from her childhood home--and only 40 miles from Costas' police headquarters.

Remarkably, Freshwater managed to avoid any contact with people from her past. Once, she encountered her aunt at a flea market, but the woman didn't recognize her. She ran into a nurse who had known her in high school, but again was not recognized.

"She was able to hide for 32 years because she kept her mouth shut," Costas said.

After getting the case in 1993, Costas interviewed Freshwater's brother, half-brother, aunt, high school friends and ex-boyfriend. He even tracked down the father of the son she had given up for adoption in 1966. He reviewed phone records and got a court order for a "mail cover" to monitor relatives' mail. Nothing came of it.

After the "America's Most Wanted" episode about Freshwater aired in 1994, viewers claimed to have seen her in grocery stores and parking lots across America. Costas confronted middle-aged women across Ohio, persuaded them to be fingerprinted, then apologized.

Twice, Costas thought he might have found Freshwater. But a woman named Freshwater who had married a man surnamed Margo proved to be a dead end, as did a woman from Canada who had sent a cryptic letter to Freshwater's half-brother.

By 1995, Costas was out of leads. "I never really closed the case out," he said, "but it kind of just sat there. I figured she was probably dead."

The investigation was also stalled in Tennessee, where four agents had picked it up and put it down since 1970. By 2001, it had fallen to Agent Greg Elliott of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

"It was a cold case," Elliott said. "There were just no leads--period. She had disappeared off the face of the Earth."

By this time, Freshwater, now 53, was living with Daryl McCartor in an apartment on Windchime Way in Columbus, just 10 miles from her childhood home. Daryl had taught her to drive his rig. Tonya's CB handle was "Sexy Legs." Daryl's was "Leg Inspector."

They drove across America, visiting Graceland and the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Freshwater was ticketed twice for speeding, in Indiana and New Mexico, but troopers had no reason to question her because her trucker's license was valid.

In March, a producer from TV's "Unsolved Mysteries" called Tennessee authorities seeking information for a program about Freshwater. Elliott pulled the file.

For most of Freshwater's three decades on the run, police chasing fugitives had relied on tips from family or friends, traffic stops, or painstaking reviews of paper files in courthouses or state agencies. But now Tennessee police had a sophisticated Internet database linked to vital statistics nationwide.

"Instead of going through paperwork in a file room, you just punch in numbers and there's a whole new world of possibilities," Elliott said.

He mentioned the case to a police computer analyst, who suggested entering the alias Tonya and Freshwater's birth date--June 4, 1948. To their astonishment, the computer came up with a Tonya Hudkins in Worthington, Ohio, the Columbus suburb where Freshwater grew up.

Elliott thought it was a longshot. It didn't seem logical that Freshwater would risk hiding out in her hometown, or that she would change her identity but not her birth date.

Even so, he called Gregg Costas.

Costas, too, thought it was probably another false lead. But he pulled up a computerized version of Tonya Hudkins' Ohio driver's license and compared it to Freshwater's 1966 police mug shot.

"It blew me away," he recalled.

Even after three decades, everything matched: hairline, eyes, chin, ears, cheekbones. Margo Freshwater was 5-foot-3, 116 pounds. Tonya Hudkins was 5-foot-2, 118 pounds.

Costas e-mailed the photos to Elliott.

"Like looking at a mother and daughter," Elliott recalled.

Costas subpoenaed Hudkins' employee records. He found a gap in her work history from 1966 to 1970--when Freshwater was in jail.

Hudkins had listed Cleveland as her birthplace on her 2000 marriage license, but Costas found no record of such a birth. The high school Hudkins claimed to have attended did not exist.

Costas remembers thinking: This woman may not be Margo Freshwater, but she's definitely hiding from somebody.

Costas began staking out the nondescript brick apartment Hudkins shared with McCartor. No one came or went for days. As it turned out, the couple were on the road in Daryl's rig.

Finally, as Costas drove home from a drug case on Saturday, May 18, he decided to swing past the apartment. Daryl's maroon Chevrolet Lumina, with the Ohio tag "ROOT 66," was parked out front. He called Daryl's number and a woman answered. He pretended to have the wrong number and hung up.

Costas tried to control his excitement. He called the county prosecutor, Ron O'Brien, at home and begged him to get a search warrant for the next day, a Sunday. He feared the couple would be back on the road by Monday, and he did not want to have to chase them across the country.

Costas provided the prosecutor with photo transparencies of Freshwater's mug shot and Hudkins' driver's license photo. He called Elliott, who flew up that night from Tennessee.

The next morning, the agents followed Tonya and Daryl to a doughnut shop, a carwash and a grocery store. To get a good look at Tonya, Elliott followed her into the grocery and engaged her in small talk about fabric softeners. He was convinced they had found Margo Freshwater.

A stakeout team followed the couple back to the apartment while the two agents and prosecutor O'Brien rushed to a judge's home for a search warrant requiring Hudkins to provide her fingerprints. The instant the judge saw the photo transparencies, O'Brien said, he issued the warrant.

At midafternoon, Daryl and Tonya--along with Tonya's son Tim, his fiance, Casey Henry, and their baby, A.J.--drove toward the Columbus airport. The agents, fearing Tonya was planning to fly out of state, discussed how to best intercept her inside a busy airport.

But the family pulled into a health club next to the airport and went inside for a swim. An hour later, they walked to the parking lot. Tonya was carrying her grandson.

The agents approached and asked if she was Tonya McCartor. She nodded.

"We have reason to believe you're not who you say you are," Costas said.

Daryl said: "This is my wife."

Tim said: "This is my mother."

The agents said they believed she was actually a fugitive named Margo Freshwater.

Tim laughed out loud. He thought it was a prank. Casey laughed too. She thought it was one of those Internet scams where people's identities are stolen.

Daryl was certain it was all a mistake that would be ironed out in a few minutes.

Tonya said nothing. Her expression was blank. She handed the baby to Casey.

The agents produced the warrant. Tonya was told that a police van would take her, handcuffed, to the police station to be fingerprinted.

Tonya asked for a moment to say goodbye. She gave long, tender hugs to her husband and her son and her son's fiance and whispered into the ear of each one. Then she was gone.

She had whispered: "I was always afraid this day would come."

A Quick Match

It took only a matter of minutes to match Tonya's fingerprints to the police prints taken from Margo Freshwater 36 years before. Tonya took the news stoically.

Costas felt numb: "After all these years, she was like some fictitious character. She was like a ghost to me."

There was so much he wanted to ask the trim, blond grandmother who sat before him. He agreed to her request for a few minutes to say goodbye to her family in return for answering questions.

Costas asked whether she had lived her life looking over her shoulder.

No, she said, because Margo Freshwater no longer existed. She had to die, she told the agent, so that Tonya could live.

"She had compartmentalized it," prosecutor O'Brien said later. "She had convinced herself that those events had never happened."

Asked why she returned to the one place in the world where people knew her face, Tonya said Ohio was all she knew--and besides, she only had enough train fare to reach central Ohio.

She could not explain why she had neglected to change her birth date.

Costas thought he knew: "People tend to cling to familiar things, and what's more familiar than your birthday?"

Tonya showed emotion only when Costas asked about the son she gave up for adoption. Choking back tears, she told him that she had never been able to find him.

When her family was brought in to see her, Tonya hugged them again. She told them: "I'm not that same person anymore."

She said she had been a naive teenager who had been manipulated by her lawyer. She went along with Nash, she told them, because she was terrified he would kill her.

Daryl told her he believed her and would stand by her. Tim and Casey, in tears, told her they loved her.

Today, Margo Freshwater is being held in "maximum security segregation" away from other inmates at the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she had escaped 32 years ago. The prison has since added several security fences.

Had she served her original sentence, she would have been eligible for parole in 1998. Now she must serve her 99-year sentence, plus any time she receives for escaping.

In news stories following her arrest, relatives of the three people killed in 1966 said justice had finally been done.

"This woman committed a horrendous act," said Susie Robbins-West, the granddaughter of murdered clerk Hillman Robbins. "She needs to pay her debt, in full."

Within days of the arrest, Freshwater's family began raising money for the legal defense of the woman they still call Tonya.

They held a carwash, sold soft drinks at a fair and peddled grocery coupon books. They handed out a flier with Tonya's photo and a plea: "A loving grandmother, mother and wife in Columbus, Ohio needs your help!"

Since her arrest, Margo has exchanged hundreds of letters with her husband, sons and Casey Henry. Daryl has hired a law firm and signed over his life insurance policy as a down payment. He hopes to win clemency for his wife, or at least a new trial.

"My wife is a gentle, loving person who got caught up in tragic circumstances," Daryl said. He calls the arrest "blind justice from the past."

As a young mother herself, Casey Henry says she can understand how "a 38-year-old lawyer could really take advantage of a scared 18-year-old girl." She believes in Tonya's innocence. "I'd suspect myself before I'd suspect her," she said.

Phil Hudkins, 32, who was born during his mother's first year on the run, said she is no killer. "Tennessee made a big mistake," he said.

Recommended Investigations

Join the discussion