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CRIME

NC man caught in Ga. 16 years after prison escape

A convicted killer who escaped from a North Carolina prison 16 years ago was captured Thursday in a rural Georgia town where authorities say he'd settled down with a family, bought a mobile home and started his own business selling pine straw.

Manuel Hrneith, 49, is awaiting extradition from Tattnall County in southeast Georgia back to North Carolina, where he was serving an 18-year sentence for second-degree murder and other crimes until he escaped from a minimum-security prison in Wilmington in May 1995.

North Carolina authorities found no trace of the fugitive until last week, when a tip pointed them to tiny Cobbtown, Ga., about 60 miles west of Savannah.

"Apparently he must've been a model citizen," said Tommy Long, supervisory deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service in Savannah. "The guy's gone 16 years and didn't get in trouble, not even a traffic stop."

The escapee had been living in Tattnall County under the alias Alfredo Arrieta Urieta since at least 2004, when property records show he bought a mobile home. He lived with a woman who told sheriff's deputies she was his wife, as well as three children she identified as theirs.

Hrneith made his living raking, bundling and selling pine straw, and told authorities that he often traveled out of Georgia to deliver to buyers, said Capt. Kevin Keyfauver of the Tattnall County Sheriff's Office.

Keyfauver said the fugitive had about four rifles and handguns in his home, but he surrendered peacefully when authorities showed up at 1 a.m. Thursday.

"We went out and asked him what his real name was and he told us, and we asked him if he had problems in NC and he said, 'Yeah,'" Keyfauver said.

Hrneith was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991 in Pitt County, N.C., though District Attorney Clark Everett said Thursday he did not remember the case and could not immediately find who the victim was or any other details.

Hrneith faces charges in Tattnall County for being a convicted felon in possession of guns.

Keyfauver said the escapee waived extradition back to North Carolina, where prison officials are ready to return him to a cell after 16 years.

"We hope to have him back in custody soon," said Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Corrections.