Indicted for war crimes, his country torn apart by civil conflict, poised to go into exile — Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) is at the center of a gripping international drama.
But he was once just a young man with an unremarkable name who pumped gas, worked in a plastics factory, and studied at a Massachusetts college.
He also earned a share of notoriety by becoming the only escapee from the Plymouth County (search) jail who wasn't caught.
The Liberian-born Taylor, now 55, spent the 1970s in Boston, earning an economics degree from Bentley College (search) in Waltham in 1977 and working as an activist on Liberian issues.
Delores Adighibe, of Boston, said she lived in the same apartment building as Taylor for about five years in the early 1970s, when both were students at Bentley. She described Taylor as "political and generous."
"He was very big-hearted, very giving, but extremely political and concerned about Liberia," she said. "We were all very active."
Adighibe, who is co-chairman of the Liberian Community Association of Massachusetts, said she has been disappointed with Taylor, though, since he was elected the country's president in 1997.
"I think greed took him ... overpowered him," she said.
She spoke as President Bush, embarking on a five-day tour of Africa, is demanding that Taylor relinquish power.
Mohammed Kromah, 53, of Baltimore, said he remembered Taylor from when the two worked together as activists in the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas during the 1970s, trying to inform the world of what was happening in Liberia.
Kromah, now president of the organization, said he and many of Taylor's friends are disappointed with Taylor's tenure as president. He was articulate and idealistic during his six years in power, but achieved little, Kromah said.
"There's not a single thing in the country that you can proudly say that 'Mr. Taylor did this,"' he said. "It's a waste, a vacuum, an emptiness in Liberian history."
Taylor, who was raised in a suburb of the Liberian capital of Monrovia, went back to Liberia in 1979 after a regime change. He won a top job in the new government of Samuel Doe, but was charged with embezzling $1 million as head of Liberia's General Services Administration.
Taylor fled to the United States, but he was arrested and incarcerated in the Plymouth County jail.
On Sept. 15, 1985, Taylor cut through bars with a hacksaw and climbed down a knotted sheet to gain his freedom, avoiding extradition and trial in his home country.
Back in Liberia, Taylor led rebels against Doe in a bloody conflict that killed hundreds of thousands in the late '80s. Acknowledged as the country's strongest warlord, he was then elected as president of the country in 1997. But rebels have been fighting for three years to oust him.
Taylor has been indicted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone for allegedly supporting rebels in a bloody conflict in that country.