38 years after prison escape, FBI knocks on woman's door

Margaret B. Smith escaped from the Robeson County women's facility in February 1977

Associated Press

LUMBERTON, N.C. — Margaret B. Smith's version of the story, she walked away from a state prison halfway house in February 1977 because she had to protect her family.

Smith, now 68, said the escape from the Robeson County women's facility came shortly after a visit by her then 7-year-old daughter brought such disturbing news that Smith refuses to talk about it even now.

The news, Smith said, led her to a highway, where she stuck out her thumb, returned to her family in Fayetteville and never looked back.

Thirty-eight years later - on May 14, 2015 - FBI Task Force Officer Tonya S. Sconyers knocked on Smith's door.

"I knew what they wanted," said Smith, the mother of seven children who was convicted in 1974 of writing more than $200 in worthless checks. "I didn't try to fight or resist them. I just knew."

Sconyers said Smith's capture is the result of a joint task force by the FBI and the state Department of Public Safety that aims to locate and return 147 North Carolina escapees to prison.

Since the program began Sept. 1, Sconyers said, the task force has directly returned eight escapees to prison and captured five more by "other means."

In addition to those 13, Sconyers said, the task force found 14 escapees in federal or state prisons. It has confirmed that 18 others are dead.

Many of the escapes happened in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The oldest case - that of bigamist Richard Scott - is from 1947. Sconyers doesn't know whether Scott is still living - he'd be 91 now - but she aims to track him down, dead or alive.

"We're pretty proud of what we did in the last year," Sconyers said. "We're not going to stop until we get them all."

Margaret Smith sat in a small conference room at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women wearing a light green prison-issued outfit and a dark-green ball cap.

Prisoner No. 0378248 began her story by saying she has been treated well since her capture, but that sentiment dissolved later in an emotional interview that wandered from her escape, to her life on the lam, to her time in solitary confinement and what she described as a brush with death because the prison changed her diabetes medication.

Smith is quick with dates and details of events, but her story doesn't align with prison records or Sconyer's account of the investigation that led to her capture.

Smith said she was convicted in 1974 of writing about $200 in worthless checks to the former Woolworth's and Rayless department stores in Fayetteville.

She said she had little choice but to write those checks; her husband had left her with seven young mouths to feed and clothe.

Smith said she served 3 1/2 years of a four-year sentence, the last few months in the Robeson County halfway house, before deciding to walk away with two months remaining on her sentence.

Initially, Smith said, she lived with a longtime friend and then moved in with one of her daughters.

She described herself as a religious woman who never committed another crime after her escape. She said she has lived nowhere other than Fayetteville.

Smith said she often contemplated turning herself in but just couldn't find the resolve to follow through. Instead, she said, she spent much of her time as a volunteer at the Strickland Bridge Road Church of God and looking over her shoulder.

Sconyers, the FBI task force officer, and state prison records tell a different story.

Prison records show that Smith was sentenced to probation in 1974 for larceny and writing worthless checks. She wrote more worthless checks while on probation and was sentenced to a total of four years in prison on Oct. 14, 1976. Three months after entering the Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, Smith was transferred to the halfway house in Robeson County, where she worked cleaning motel rooms. She escaped a month later, the records show.

Prison spokesman Keith Acree said Smith lived in Florida for a time after her escape. Sconyers said Smith had used the name Margaret Valeus in an attempt to dodge the law.

Smith acknowledged that Valeus is her maiden name, but she denied using it to conceal her identity.

Sconyers said the task force unearthed evidence of "petty crimes" Smith committed while on the run.

Unless the state Parole Commission decides otherwise - Smith is eligible for parole - the state intends to keep her in prison until May 28, 2017.

"Whether she stays is up to the Parole Commission," said Kenneth Royster, warden of the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women. "I empathize with her situation, and I understand it could be very difficult for her and her family. That's not lost on me."

But ultimately, Royster said, "she owes us that time."

After her return to the women's prison, Smith was put in solitary confinement - "the hole" in prison lingo, administrative segregation according to correction officials.

Smith hadn't done anything wrong, other than to escape 38 years earlier.

But Acree said prison policy is to punish escapees with 45 days of solitary.

The age of the person or the severity of their crime doesn't normally come into play. People who escape from prison and get caught go to the hole.

"You break the rules, you pay a penalty," Acree said.

Smith described her time in solitary confinement. She said she had gotten out of it only two days earlier.

Smith said she got one shower a day. Some days, she said, breakfast was cold before it got to her. She said she was allowed outside for an hour a day, but only if there was enough staff available to accompany her. Ants, she said, were all over her cell.

"It's inhumane for anybody to live in," she said.

Smith's pastor, Bennie Wells of Strickland Bridge Road Church of God, doesn't understand why Smith had to be put in solitary confinement. He worries about her health - she has diabetes, high blood pressure and other illnesses - and he questions whether the prison can adequately care for her.

"I think we can do better than that," he said. "I don't believe she is much of a threat to anybody right now."

Wells said Smith has been a member of his church for about seven years. She works as a pastor's aide, he said, helping with fundraisers, cooking, cleaning and whatever else is needed of her.

He said Smith never divulged her prison escape until after she was caught, not even to her son, Reginald Smith, who is an associate pastor at the church.

But that didn't stop Wells from writing a letter to prison officials asking that Smith be released. He thinks she should face punishment, perhaps probation or house arrest, but he doesn't think prison is the place for a 68-year-old woman with significant health problems.

Wells said he has been to Smith's home for dinner many times.

"I think she has been an outstanding citizen for as long as we have known her," Wells said. "She's definitely a pillar within the community, and to me it's just a tragedy.... She's not (former organized crime boss) Whitey Bulger. She wrote some bad checks."

Wells said Smith has been through some tough times recently. Two of her sons died of illness in December, a few months before her capture, he said.

If Smith stays in prison until the completion of her sentence in 2017, it will cost taxpayers nearly $47,000, according to 2011 estimates from the Department of Public Safety. That figure could increase significantly because of Smith's health problems.

Acree, the prison spokesman, said it will be up to the Parole Commission to decide whether to release Smith. The commission has agreed to release one other escapee captured by the FBI task force. Johnny Ray Leonard of Nash County was convicted of burglary and larceny in 1968. He escaped in 1973, was caught in February and was released in April, according to prison records.

Another fugitive captured by the task force, Charles Smith, was released at the completion of his sentence, Acree said.

The task force has caught two other escapees from the Cape Fear region this year.

Brenda Lucas, 65, was captured at her Lillington home in July and is currently in solitary confinement as punishment for her escape in 1980 from the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women. She had faced a two-year sentence for possessing drugs. She is due for release in 11 months.

Roosevelt Robinson may never get out of prison again. The 68-year-old Fayetteville man was convicted of kidnapping in 1971 and escaped from prison in 1982. The task force caught up with him in Chicago and returned him to prison in February.

Court records show that Robinson was living under his dead brother's name. He had been convicted under that name, Isiah Robinson, numerous times for drugs, firearms, assault and traffic violations, the records show. He served time in prison in 2013 for drug crimes.

Sconyers made it clear that the FBI task force doesn't care what crimes were committed; it is going after all 147 escapees on its list.

But the task force has created a separate list of the 17 escapees who committed the most violent crimes. That list shows two people wanted for first-degree murder, including Jerry Jones, a Robeson County man who escaped from prison in 1987. Rapists and robbers also are on the list.

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