WOSU-TV presents the tenth installment of the Columbus Neighborhoods series. This latest documentary profiles the city of Bexley.
Ohio prison officials in search of elderly escapees
Howard Phillips’ name is among 35 on the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections most wanted felons list. He walked away from London Prison Farm on July 30, 1956 while serving time for a parole violation.
If still alive Phillips will celebrate his 103rd birthday and 49 years of freedom next month.
So does DRC have officers looking for Phillips and other elderly prison escapees?
“Yes we do.”
DRC’s Anthony Delgado, says there are officers actively searching for the most wanted felons even though some may have died years ago.
“What we try to do and we have been successful in other cases. We have been able to locate what alias name they were using and retrieve death certificates. Once we retrieve a death certificate and we verify that the person is in fact deceased then we do take them off the list at that time.”
Phillips is not the only elderly felon on the state’s most wanted list. In fact Ohio officials are looking for seven wanted felons in their 80s and three in their 90s. Their crimes include non-support, grand larceny, breaking and entering, carrying a concealed weapon, unarmed robbery and manslaughter. 82-year-old William Moon and 95-year-old Ephriam Wilson, who fled the London Prison Farm in the early to mid-50s, were convicted of murder.
Despite their advanced age Delgado says unless the state has proof the individual is dead the department can not legally remove them from the list.
“Well, there’s nothing statutorily that gives us the ability that I’m aware of to be able to take them off the list at that point. And that’s one thing that we’re working on as far as trying to get some laws more defined to when we can actually take them off the list.”
OSU Medical Center biological statistician, Donn Young, doubts whether these criminals are still alive after being on the run for fifty years or more.
“Being on the run doesn’t make you young. And if nothing else I think it probably goes the other way. It would probably take years off your life.”
Young speculates Phillips and others most likely died years ago and authorities have not been able to make a connection.
“He was born in 1902 and I think he escaped in 1956 or so, almost 50 years ago. And I think the answer is that these people just died. They either died as a John Doe or Mary Doe or whatever or under some assumed name and there was no way of basically tracking that death back.”
While Ohio’s most wanted list is made up mostly of prisoners who escaped from the 1950s and 1960s neighboring Michigan’s list is regularly updated and includes few elderly criminals.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson, Russ Cilibraise, says one of the criteria for the list is whether law enforcement officials have a recent tip on the escapee.
“It’s not so much the severity of the crime. If there’s someone that’s dangerous we try to put them on. But we leave it to the recovery units if they have cases they feel may be hot that they may be able to get tips on they may put it on. There may be other ones like some of the escapes that get left on for a long time hoping for a tip. They just use their own judgment.”
Cilibraise says Michigan criminals can stay on the list for up to 90 days before an updated.
DRC’ s Anthony Delgado says Ohio prison officials will not remove names from their list until they receive proof of death.
“Part of the issue that we look at as far as prioritizing is how much time that they actually had in versus what their crime was and what the impact is to the community. Of course we’re going to keep them on the list and keep searching for them if they’re a murderer or if they have violent crime that would be more of an impact to the community.”
Delgado says violent offenders such as Howard Phillips, William Moon and Ephriam Wilson are still considered a threat to the community even though they have been running from the law for decades and have outlived their predicted life expectancy.