FORT PIERCE, Fla. – The knock came as Eddie Miller was sitting in his favorite armchair watching "Texas Justice" on TV. He opened the door to find a plainclothes detective and two uniformed St. Lucie County (search) sheriff's deputies.
"Mr. Mayes!" said Detective Greg Farliss to the grizzled man behind the barred screen door.
"Where you get that from?" Miller answered.
"That's your name," the detective replied, undeterred.
Miller didn't see any point in arguing. After all, when he walked off that prison work detail and into the piney woods of east Georgia, 44 years of freedom were more than he could have ever hoped for.
"Well, here I am then," said the 69-year-old retired fruit picker said. "You got your man."
Life of Unexpected Setbacks
Thinking back on it, Eddie Miller realizes his life has been one of unexpected setbacks and even more unexpected boons. It has also been a life of second chances — some willingly given, others he took for himself.
Growing up in Warren County, Ga., in the Carolina border pinelands, Eddie "Bee" Mayes (search) didn't even know who his daddy was. There were already so many kids in the house that Lula Mayes decided to send her boy to live with her brother in neighboring McDuffie County.
Mayes' uncle made him go to church about every Sunday. But when it came to school, third grade was far enough.
In his early teens, Mayes spent a couple of years in a juvenile facility for burglary. When he got out, he decided to head south to Fort Pierce, Fla., where he was told there was good money to be made picking fruit and vegetables.
In late 1956, Mayes went home to Georgia to visit family. One night, he was driving around Oglethorpe County in a big gray '48 Ford with his half brother, Frank Ellis, and Frank's friend, W.C. Clarke, when he fell asleep in the back seat.
Mayes says he awoke to the sound of sirens and the flashing of lights.
The Augusta Chronicle of Nov. 29, 1956, reported that "three Negro men" had been charged with several holdups and robberies in five counties between Athens and Augusta. In one, the culprits got away with a penny gum machine from N.V. Blanchard's new general store in Appling.
Mayes waived his rights to jury trials, evidently not fully understanding what that meant. He says his brother told the judges Mayes wasn't involved.
Mayes ended up pleading guilty after being advised that he'd only serve a little bit of time. When the concurrent and consecutive sentences from the five different counties were tallied, Mayes was looking at a minimum of 35 years.
The Great Escape
Mayes was sent to the Jefferson County Public Works Camp (search), an unfenced facility a couple of counties south of home.
Day after day, the inmates — most of them black — would be driven out into the county to dig ditches, clear brush or lay water lines. One early summer day about four years into his sentence, the guards took Mayes out to the pit where lumber was soaked in creosote preservative.
Most of the inmates were given gloves to handle the wood, but Mayes didn't get any. Before long, Mayes had managed to get some of the chemical in his eyes, and they began to burn.
Mayes says he complained to a guard, who accused him of slacking off.
He was given 10 days in "the hole." Mayes says he was stripped to his shorts, placed in a tiny, windowless cell, and put on bread and water.
"I tell you, it was rough," he says. "A lot of the nights I laid down on the floor crying."
Not long after that stint was over, a guard accused Mayes of not working fast enough. Another 10 days in the hole.
The day that punishment ended, July 22, 1960, Mayes went straight back to work detail. Weak from reduced rations, he was at his breaking point.
This particular day, a gang of about 15 men was digging a long, deep drainage ditch about 12 miles from the camp, with the warden and two armed guards keeping watch. They were about 100 yards from a dense pine forest.
Mayes asked the warden for permission to get a drink of water. He quenched his thirst, then walked back past the guards and just kept walking.
"Shoot me and get it over," Mayes recalled saying to himself as he marched toward those woods, the guns to his back. "'Cause I'm gone."
There were no shots, and Mayes walked on.
Before long, he says he came across an open dump where he found a pair of ratty bluejeans and other clothes. He swapped them for his prison uniform and began to run.
After about three miles, he emerged from the woods onto U.S. 1, the road he'd taken back home four years earlier. He flagged down a tractor-trailer; the driver told him he was headed for Miami.
Mayes asked the man if he could take him as far as Fort Pierce.
Mayes settled back into the migrant work he'd done before going home for that fateful visit. He picked tomatoes and peppers around St. Lucie County and headed north to pick apples in New York's Hudson Valley.
He called himself Miller, the name of the man he believed to be his father.
About two years after his escape, walking down the street in Fort Pierce, Mayes bumped into a man he'd served on the work gang with at Jefferson. It scared him, but the man took the secret to the grave with him a couple of years later.
Miller began to believe he was home free.
In the fall of 1966, Miller was working a white potato field near Rochester, N.Y., when a girl caught his eye. Ethel Jones, 18, was the niece of two of Miller's oldest Florida friends, and within three weeks, they were going to the drive-in movies together.
He told her where he was born, but he never mentioned the name Mayes — or the troubles associated with it.
The couple married in 1969 and raised two sons and a daughter. As the years passed, Miller worked the fields and kept his nose clean. He didn't drink or smoke, and his only brushes with the law were a speeding citation and a $500 fine for transporting fruit without a ticket.
Miller had long since ceased worrying about being reincarcerated. So confident was he that, in 2001, he moved his family briefly to McDuffie County.
He had no idea that his arrest warrant had been updated in 1991 and entered into the new computerized criminal identification system. Unlike the original, this one included an alias: Eddie Miller.
'Let the Lord Work it Out'
On March 5, Ethel Miller went out for a hair appointment, leaving Eddie by the TV in his favorite high-backed armchair. On her way home, she stopped at the grocery and called her husband to see if he wanted her to bring him something for lunch.
He told her to pick him up a Filet-O-Fish sandwich from McDonald's.
When Ethel arrived home 15 minutes later, the house was empty. There wasn't even a note.
About four hours later, at 6:30, her husband called her from the St. Lucie County Jail.
"What are you doing in Rock Road jail?" she asked.
"Let me tell you, honey," he replied, "it's a long story. I should have told you a long lot of years ago. ... They had an old warrant out on me."
Mrs. Miller started screaming.
"They must have the wrong man," she sobbed. "What am I going to do now?"
As it turns out, the authorities had been on Miller's trail for three months.
In late December, Miller had applied to be put on a visitor's list at Avon Park Correctional Institution, where his oldest son, Tony, was serving 27 months for armed burglary.
During a routine background check, a data entry operator got a hit on an old Georgia warrant. The birthdates didn't match, but the name Eddie Miller did. She contacted Georgia authorities.
Five days after the arrest, talking over a jail phone through a thick glass barrier, Miller apologized to his wife for not telling her about his past. She told him she and the family were behind him, and that the entire church was praying for him.
"Don't worry," she told him. "We'll just pray and let the Lord work it out, because God will work it out."
Miller was transferred to Autry State Prison, a close-security prison in the south Georgia town of Pelham, where he was housed in a two-tier dormitory with mostly young, chain-smoking violent offenders. They took to calling the old man "Pop."
Miller whiled away the hours cleaning up around the dorm. He played cards and chess with the other inmates. At night, he would say the Lord's Prayer.
Unit manager Keith Jones says Miller had the air of a man who was resigned to take whatever fate had in store for him.
The Department of Corrections notified the State Board of Pardons and Paroles of Miller's recapture. Noting his age and 44 years of clean living, the board voted to consider Miller for commutation. Miller had not even hired a lawyer and had no idea the board had taken up his case.
On June 1, the old man was sitting around the unit common area when Jones walked up with a fax in his hand.
"I've got some good news for you," he told Miller, then read aloud from a letter stating that Miller's sentence had been commuted to time served.
"The 11th of this month," Jones said, "you'll be a free man."
A beaming Miller shook Jones' hand. His fellow inmates slapped him on the back.
Ethel was at the prison before sunup that Friday. As he walked away from a Georgia prison for the second time in his life, Miller turned to Jones and quipped: "I'm going to miss this place and the good food you all served me."
His wife drove the car back to Fort Pierce. Every so often, Miller would reach over and pat her arm or hold her hand.
Too Many Young Offenders Need Prison Beds
The parole board noted that none of the crimes to which the young Mayes had pleaded involved weapons. There are too many young violent offenders who need the prison beds, and board member Mike Light says the decision to show Miller mercy was a rare unanimous one.
"He's shown that's he's worthy of a second chance," Light says.
Sitting barefoot in his favorite chair, his wife and two of their grandchildren around him, Miller still wonders how his alias ended up in the system. Officials could not say exactly. What Miller does know for sure is that he has been blessed.
"When you get down to praying," he says, "you know God will answer your prayers."
Eddie says he intends to make his adopted name legal. Ethel is just fine with that. The way she sees it, Eddie Mayes died in prison 44 years ago.