But 32 years later, one slip-up and a cop's computer check expose her secret.
by David Zucchino, The Los Angeles Times
Daryl McCartor met Tonya Hudkins three years ago through a telephone
service. Their first date was at McDonald's. On their second
went ballroom dancing.
Within months, they were married. It was Daryl's second marriage,
They were inseparable, a trucker and an insurance agent, both in
50s. They went bowling and horseback riding, rode in Daryl's
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
Donuts and a family swim. Plainclothes police approached Tonya
in a health
club parking lot. As her husband, son and daughter-in-law
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,
had taken part in a killing spree across three states that left
dead. Convicted of murder and sentenced to 99 years,
from a Tennessee prison in 1970. Then she vanished.
And now, after 32 years, the law had finally caught up with her,
in plain sight in her hometown. Not even her husband and
"Well," Daryl said later, "it was like we'd walked out of a movie
and now we were in the movie."
In some ways, it is easier than ever to disappear in an America of
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
and three grown children. And when they finally accepted the
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
caring mother and Daryl McCartor's devoted wife and the
of Casey Henry's 19-month-old boy, A.J.
"My mom is a victim," said Tonya's youngest son, Timothy Hudkins, 22,
knows her only as the mother who worked two jobs, always had
the table and drove him to Little League games.
Margo Freshwater was careful to scrub away the residue of her
life. She changed her name. She applied for a new Social
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
Freshwater thought of almost everything.
Tracking a Cold Case
Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal
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
had tracked Freshwater to Baltimore after the escape, but quickly
her trail. The agency's only solid lead had come from
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
because the TV show "America's Most Wanted" was preparing an
Freshwater, and had asked Tennessee police for background
But as he reviewed the paperwork, he was fascinated: An
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
1966 when she went to Memphis to hire a lawyer for her boyfriend,
Schlereth, jailed there for armed robbery. She contacted
Nash, later described by his own lawyer as "crazy as
Schlereth, interviewed by Costas in 1994, said Nash and Freshwater
planned to smuggle guns into the courtroom and free him. Instead,
became lovers--and then killers.
In court, a prosecutor described them as "Bonnie and Clyde." Courts
three states found Nash legally insane. He was confined to
hospitals until his release in 1983.
Two Mississippi juries deadlocked on charges that Freshwater was an
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
to leave him during the three-week rampage. But witnesses
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
man, had been shot and killed?" the prosecutor asked.
"Under the circumstances," Freshwater replied, "I didn't have any
It took the jury just three hours to convict her.
A few weeks after her escape, Freshwater rolled back into Ohio on a
from Baltimore. She settled in Ashland, 70 miles north of
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,
Police have not determined who the father was. Over the next
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
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
past. Once, she encountered her aunt at a flea market, but the
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,"
After getting the case in 1993, Costas interviewed Freshwater's
half-brother, aunt, high school friends and ex-boyfriend. He
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
viewers claimed to have seen her in grocery stores and parking
America. Costas confronted middle-aged women across Ohio,
to be fingerprinted, then apologized.
Twice, Costas thought he might have found Freshwater. But a woman
Freshwater who had married a man surnamed Margo proved to be a
as did a woman from Canada who had sent a cryptic letter to
By 1995, Costas was out of leads. "I never really closed the case
he said, "but it kind of just sat there. I figured she was
The investigation was also stalled in Tennessee, where four agents
picked it up and put it down since 1970. By 2001, it had fallen
Greg Elliott of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
"It was a cold case," Elliott said. "There were just no
She had disappeared off the face of the Earth."
By this time, Freshwater, now 53, was living with Daryl McCartor in
apartment on Windchime Way in Columbus, just 10 miles from her
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
Tennessee. Freshwater was ticketed twice for speeding, in Indiana
Mexico, but troopers had no reason to question her because
license was valid.
In March, a producer from TV's "Unsolved Mysteries" called Tennessee
seeking information for a program about Freshwater.
Elliott pulled the
For most of Freshwater's three decades on the run, police chasing
had relied on tips from family or friends, traffic stops,
reviews of paper files in courthouses or state
agencies. But now Tennessee
police had a sophisticated Internet
database linked to vital statistics
"Instead of going through paperwork in a file room, you just punch in
and there's a whole new world of possibilities," Elliott said.
He mentioned the case to a police computer analyst, who suggested
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
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
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,
cheekbones. Margo Freshwater was 5-foot-3, 116 pounds. Tonya
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
history from 1966 to 1970--when Freshwater was in jail.
Hudkins had listed Cleveland as her birthplace on her 2000 marriage
but Costas found no record of such a birth. The high school
to have attended did not exist.
Costas remembers thinking: This woman may not be Margo Freshwater,
she's definitely hiding from somebody.
Costas began staking out the nondescript brick apartment Hudkins
with McCartor. No one came or went for days. As it turned out,
were on the road in Daryl's rig.
Finally, as Costas drove home from a drug case on Saturday, May 18,
decided to swing past the apartment. Daryl's maroon Chevrolet
the Ohio tag "ROOT 66," was parked out front. He called
and a woman answered. He pretended to have the wrong
number and hung up.
Costas tried to control his excitement. He called the county
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
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
a carwash and a grocery store. To get a good look at Tonya,
her into the grocery and engaged her in small talk
about fabric softeners.
He was convinced they had found Margo
A stakeout team followed the couple back to the apartment while the
agents and prosecutor O'Brien rushed to a judge's home for a
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
Casey Henry, and their baby, A.J.--drove toward the Columbus
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
for a swim. An hour later, they walked to the parking lot.
Tonya was carrying
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
Tim laughed out loud. He thought it was a prank. Casey laughed too.
thought it was one of those Internet scams where people's
Daryl was certain it was all a mistake that would be ironed out in a
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
take her, handcuffed, to the police station to be fingerprinted.
Tonya asked for a moment to say goodbye. She gave long, tender hugs
her husband and her son and her son's fiance and whispered into
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
prints taken from Margo Freshwater 36 years before. Tonya took
Costas felt numb: "After all these years, she was like some
character. She was like a ghost to me."
There was so much he wanted to ask the trim, blond grandmother who
before him. He agreed to her request for a few minutes to say
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
she told the agent, so that Tonya could live.
"She had compartmentalized it," prosecutor O'Brien said later. "She
convinced herself that those events had never happened."
Asked why she returned to the one place in the world where people
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
more familiar than your birthday?"
Tonya showed emotion only when Costas asked about the son she gave up
adoption. Choking back tears, she told him that she had never
to find him.
When her family was brought in to see her, Tonya hugged them again.
told them: "I'm not that same person anymore."
She said she had been a naive teenager who had been manipulated by
lawyer. She went along with Nash, she told them, because she was
he would kill her.
Daryl told her he believed her and would stand by her. Tim and Casey,
tears, told her they loved her.
Today, Margo Freshwater is being held in "maximum security
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
parole in 1998. Now she must serve her 99-year sentence, plus any
she receives for escaping.
In news stories following her arrest, relatives of the three people
in 1966 said justice had finally been done.
"This woman committed a horrendous act," said Susie Robbins-West, the
of murdered clerk Hillman Robbins. "She needs to pay
her debt, in full."
Within days of the arrest, Freshwater's family began raising money
the legal defense of the woman they still call Tonya.
They held a carwash, sold soft drinks at a fair and peddled grocery
books. They handed out a flier with Tonya's photo and a plea:
grandmother, mother and wife in Columbus, Ohio needs your
Since her arrest, Margo has exchanged hundreds of letters with her
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
Daryl said. He calls the arrest "blind justice from
As a young mother herself, Casey Henry says she can understand how "a
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
Phil Hudkins, 32, who was born during his mother's first year on the
said she is no killer. "Tennessee made a big mistake," he said.