It would have been a wonderful family reunion had it not taken place inside the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Last Saturday, after decades apart, Tommy Freshwater was reunited with his sister, Margo. An escaped fugitive who fled her 99-year prison sentence for a suburban life as a wife, mother and grandmother, Freshwater was finally apprehended last May after 32 years on the run. While authorities have speculated that the Freshwater siblings might have met while she was eluding authorities, Tommy says that the last time he saw his sister was when they were teenagers in suburban Columbus, Ohio, more than 36 years ago.
“We were best friends,” says Tommy Freshwater, 52. “She was my protector.”
As children growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Worthington, Tommy and Margo Freshwater played kickball and built forts. During the frigid Ohio winters, the mischievous pair would flood their snow-covered neighborhood street, turning it into an ice rink. Tall and thin with straight blond hair, Margo was a tomboy. She played tackle football with the neighborhood kids and competed on the track and swim teams in high school. With a mother who struggled with alcohol and a father who abandoned the family when the children were young, Margo took it upon herself to look after her younger brother.
At the prison, Margo and Tommy talked about many of those childhood memories, but the two had more pressing things to worry about. Like hoping and praying that the 53-year-old inmate will get a new trial or be granted clemency for the bizarre 1966 murder, to which her then-lover confessed. Now Margo’s future is in the hands of noted Knoxville defense attorney Robert Ritchie, who’s investigating both possibilities.
“There was no breakdown for either of us,” Tommy Freshwater says. “We don’t have time for tears. We’re on a mission.”
In 1966, when Margo departed for Memphis, Tommy had no reason to suspect she’d be gone long. A deeply troubled teen with an unfortunate attraction to no-good men, Margo took a 15-hour bus ride to Bluff City to help her derelict boyfriend. Freshwater’s poorly chosen paramour was stuck in the Shelby County jail awaiting charges of armed robbery, having already been convicted of a similar charge. While in Memphis, Freshwater became intimate with her boyfriend’s married attorney, Glenn Nash, a boozing, 38-year-old schemer.
One night, an intoxicated Nash asked her to accompany him to a liquor store, and she reluctantly agreed. At the store, however, things went horribly wrong. Nash tied up Hillman Robbins Sr., a Memphis man working at the store, stole about $600 and later shot him five times in the head. The two escaped in the car together, but before they were caught three weeks later, a clerk in Florida and a cab driver in Mississippi turned up dead. Nash confessed to all the murders but was found to be incompetent to stand trial. After stints in various mental institutions, Nash improbably gained his freedom and returned to his old home in West Memphis, Ark., where he resides today.
Freshwater met a different fate. In 1969, a Memphis jury convicted the young woman of first-degree murder, even though the prosecution essentially stipulated that she didn’t shoot the victim in the liquor store. What they argued, however, was that Freshwater was a willing and calculating accomplice, who continued to sleep with her lover long after she knew he was a killer. In her defense, Freshwater testified that the gun-toting Nash had threatened her with her life if she ran to the law. An all-male jury didn’t buy that argument and sentenced her to 99 years in prison.
After her conviction and a failed appeal, Freshwater and a fellow inmate escaped from the Tennessee Prison for Women, outrunning a prison guard and scaling a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The fellow inmate was caught within days; Freshwater returned to Ohio, married a few times and had three children.
In May, after a break in the case weeks before, authorities nabbed Freshwater, now living as Tonya Hudkins McCartor, outside an athletic club. When the plain-clothed agents surrounded her, she was walking out of the club with her husband, her youngest son, his fiancée and her 17-month-old grandson.
Tommy Freshwater, who has had his own scrapes with the law, is coy about what, if anything, he knew about his sister while she was a fugitive. In the years after her escape, the FBI kept tabs on Tommy and his mother and even tried to trick them into telling them her whereabouts. But law enforcement agents never presented any evidence that the family maintained ties with the fugitive Freshwater.
Since her capture, Tommy has spoken to his sister by telephone, but because her children have taken up a good deal of her limited visitation time, he didn’t have a chance to see her until Saturday.
He was overcome with happiness in the days leading up to the visit. “I was so excited,” says Tommy, who works as a free-lance policy researcher and has a few part-time jobs. “All I could say to my friends was 'I get to see my sister today.’ ”
Tommy and his sister’s youngest son, Tim Hudkins, left Friday at midnight and drove to Nashville from Chillicothe, Ohio. At 7 a.m. Saturday, they arrived in Nashville, caught some shut-eye and had breakfast. At around 8:45 that morning, it was time for Tommy to see his sister for the first time in 36 years. As he approached the small visitation space, where she sat behind a pane of glass wearing a prison uniform of khaki pants and a tan pullover, she smiled at him and waved her hand. He looked at her eyes and saw not a hardened inmate but the blond teenager who once looked out for him.
“I saw the little girl, and then I saw the hurt and the pain,” he says. “She lost a whole family, but I guessed she gained a new one too.”
Hudkins, meanwhile, had seen his mother several times since her arrest. The 22-year-old former high school baseball player never imagined that his mom harbored such a dark secret until he witnessed the plain-clothed law enforcement agents surround her in Columbus. He says it was therapeutic to be with his uncle for the visit.
“We bonded, and that’s part of why we came down together,” Tommy says. “I was going to drive alone, but my sister has a family and it’s time I got to know them.”
In fact, as bittersweet as the news of his sister’s capture wasTommy Freshwater was worried that she was dead, so at least her arrest put that fear asidehe did find himself a new family. For Tommy, who hides a soft heart behind a rather gruff exterior, that was definitely a silver lining in an otherwise dark situation. “Being someone who has never married, has no children and lives alone doing research all day, I’m overwhelmed,” he says.
Hudkins was there for the reunion and noticed how excited his mom was to see her brother again, finally. “She was really, really happy to see him,” he says. “You could see it in her eyes.”
Hudkins says that his mother is trying to stay upbeat. Last week, she received some long-awaited good news, when Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier handed her what basically amounts to the minimum punishment for her escape chargeone year retroactive to May. Still, Freshwater will have to travel a long, uncertain legal road before she can return to her home and family in Columbus.
“My sister’s realistic,” Tommy says. “She has no illusions that the steel gates are going to open up and that she is going to walk out tomorrow.”
In an odd way, last Saturday’s family reunion featured a pair of unlikely success stories. In the years after his sister’s arrest, Tommy Freshwater struggled mightily, landing himself behind bars, while battling the local image of him as the brother of a murderer. In the last few years, however, Tommy discarded his old ways and built a new life, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio University in 1999 and staying on another two years to earn a master’s degree in political science.
Meanwhile, Margo Freshwater escaped a 99-year sentence in prison to lead a law-abiding life, and to raise and support a devoted family. Now, as the 53-year-old grandmother spends her time in the maximum-security area of the prison, where she’s kept in her cell 23 hours a day, she undoubtedly is thinking of that family and hoping she’ll be given a chance to return home.
“She told me all she wants is for her kids to be taken care of,” Tommy says. “She has an inner strength today that I wish I had.”
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