Freshwater and the F.B.I. 

F.B.I. agent who once tracked down escaped convict questions whether she still belongs behind bars

F.B.I. agent who once tracked down escaped convict questions whether she still belongs behind bars

For more than a decade, F.B.I. special agent Richard Knudsen led the hunt for Margo Freshwater, a convicted murder who outran a prison guard, hopped a barbed wire fence and escaped from the Tennessee Prison for Women in 1970. He tracked her down to Baltimore, Md., and when the trail turned cold, he sent informants to Ohio to cozy up to her family. Having no small amount of admiration for Freshwater, Knudsen admits that he pulled out all sorts of tricks to apprehend the surprisingly wily fugitive.

But in the midst of his investigation, the agent learned more about the woman’s plight and the dubious evidence used to convict her. He felt empathy toward Freshwater and started to sympathize with the young woman, who was sentenced to 99 years in prison for a shooting death in which her demented lover admitted to unloading the gun. Without the F.B.I.’s support, he approached state authorities for clemency or some sort of deal he could deliver to the family in exchange for her capture. Today, now that she has been returned to state custody, he still believes that the case against her needs to be revisited—and that, most of all, she doesn’t belong in prison.

“I’m looking at it from the viewpoint of a law enforcement officer,” says Knudsen, who served in the F.B.I. for 30 years before taking a job in the ethics and compliance department at H.C.A. in 1998. At times sounding more like a professor than a grim investigator, Knudsen has long been fascinated with the human dimensions of law and order. “It struck me at the time and it still strikes me today that I don’t know what we accomplish by putting her back behind bars.”

In December 1966, Glenn Nash, a 38-year-old married attorney with a love for whiskey and foul play, launched a bizarre and bloody crime spree that left three people dead in Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi. It began one night with the shooting death of Hillman Robbins, a well-liked Memphian who was manning a liquor store that his friend owned. With Nash was Freshwater, his 18-year-old lover, who was either a willing accomplice or a girl scared into submission by a boozing and abusive older man.

After the police caught up with the couple, Nash confided to inmates and mental health officials that he shot all three of his victims dead because he felt they were out to do him harm. Freshwater, meanwhile, maintained her innocence. Courts in all three states found that Nash was incompetent to stand trial. After 15 years in various psychiatric facilities, a Florida hospital released him in the early 1980s. Glenn Nash now lives as a free man in West Memphis, Ark.

Freshwater, however, met a far different fate. A Memphis jury of 12 men, after hearing tales of Freshwater’s sexual promiscuity, sentenced her to 99 years in prison for the shooting death of Robbins. The prosecution never presented direct evidence that Freshwater pulled the trigger, only that she was co-conspirator in the armed-robbery. In 1970, the young woman escaped from prison with another inmate, changed her identity, and began a normal, law-abiding life. She became a mother and grandmother, while eventually finding her way back to Columbus, just minutes away from Worthington, Ohio, where she grew up.

Not long after she escaped, Richard Knudsen filed a federal unlawful flight warrant for Freshwater, a procedural initiative that F.B.I. agents undertake when they’re pursuing a fugitive across state lines. Acting on a tip, he tracked her down to Baltimore, Md., where she had fled with her fellow inmate, Faye Copeland, a 38-year old Knoxville woman serving time on a drug charge. But while local agents nabbed Copeland at the house of a friend, they missed Freshwater by only a few hours.

Afterward, Knudsen never came close to finding Freshwater. Copeland had told him that Freshwater had taken up with a pimp, but that tip, true or not, never yielded any clues as to her whereabouts. Knudsen suspected that she went home to Ohio, a hunch that was proven accurate 30-some-odd years later. Authorities finally nabbed Freshwater in Columbus. She later revealed that once she left Baltimore, she moved around Ohio, typically within a 75-mile radius of Columbus.

“Days turned into weeks, turned into months, turned into years and we kept turning to Ohio,” he says. “We put a lot of heat in Ohio.”

In fact, Knudsen, as the F.B.I. special agent in charge of the case, had agents place her mother’s house under surveillance. He even sent a young hippie couple to befriend Tommy Freshwater, Margo’s brother, in the hopes that he’d inadvertently cough up her whereabouts. Tommy himself remembers a couple pulling up to his mother’s home in an orange car with Tennessee plates. They came to the door and offered him money to give to his sister. Suspecting a setup, Freshwater told them to “get out of his house and to get out of that part of Ohio.” Knudsen did not know if that couple was the same one he had sent to befriend Tommy, but about the ruse, he acknowledges, “We could have done that.”

For years after his sister’s escape, Tommy remembers being the focal point of law enforcement’s efforts to capture Freshwater. He even had a little fun at their expense. Not long after Freshwater took her flight to freedom, Tommy played a cat-and-mouse game with the F.B.I., hitchhiking around the country and calling his mother from phone booths in various states. If the F.B.I. was monitoring his mother’s incoming calls, they might confuse his calls for hers and be thrown off her trail. Wearing long hair at the time, Tommy even applied for a job at an Iowa diner using a high-pitched voice and his sister’s name and social security number.

Even once he returned to Ohio, Tommy, a sharp character who ran afoul of the law in his youth only to turn his life around 10 years ago, continued to pester the agents hell-bent on capturing his sister. “I know our phones were tapped because people in vans would follow us whenever we left the house,” he says. “So we would go into McDonald’s, they’d follow us there and we’d tell them to hurry up and order because we’re getting ready to leave.”

Tommy had some troubles after his sister’s incarceration, and after a stint in the Marines, soon found himself in prison for selling heroin. Even when he was behind bars, however, the F.B.I. kept the heat on him, offering him freedom in exchange for information on his sister’s whereabouts. “I told them to take me back to my cell,” recalls Tommy.

Nearly 30 years later, Knudsen does not remember some of the more specific aspects of his hunt for Freshwater. But he does remember thinking that Tommy and his mother knew where his sister was. “I assumed that the family was in some sort of contact with her,” he says. “For whatever sins this family had, they were close, and Tommy was very close to his sister.”

A few years after Freshwater’s escape, Knudsen traveled to Memphis to review the case against Freshwater. There he reviewed the police record, read press clippings on the case and talked to the prosecutor. While not convinced that she had nothing to do with the murder, he felt that her sentence might have been excessive.

“What I started to question were the inequities involved,” says Knudsen, who also has a law degree. “The person who actually shot the liquor store clerk cannot be tried because he’s not capable to stand trial, but we take his co-conspirator, who by all testimony is the follower, and sentence her to 99 years.”

Knudsen informally talked to state authorities about the possibility of granting Freshwater some sort of clemency as bait. He remembers that he had grown “tired of chasing her.” But state authorities said no. Then Knudsen joined the investigation of Gov. Ray Blanton, who had come under fire for pardoning over 50 prisoners, many of whom had ties to Blanton or members of his administration. One of the prisoners pardoned, Roger Humphreys, murdered his wife and her male companion. The contrast between how the system treated Humphreys vs. Freshwater prompted Knudsen to ask members of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Paroles about the possibility of awarding Freshwater clemency. The standard line was that they would not consider any deal until she was in state custody.

Not having much to work with, Knudsen and the F.B.I. still talked to Tommy and his mother about giving up Margo. After she returned to Tennessee, they would try to work something out. “I was basically trying to tell them that if Margo would surrender or they would tell me where she is, it would be better for her to face the music now than later,” Knudsen recalls.

“I remember him saying that, but he was still with the F.B.I.,” says Tommy. “My mom saw them as the enemy. I didn’t see them as the enemy but I didn’t see them as my friend.”

Tommy was coy in saying whether or not he even knew his sister’s whereabouts. “My sister was close enough to home, but far enough away,” he says. Told that he was obviously very loyal to his sister, he says, “I was loyal enough to keep her free to 32 years.” Knudsen dropped the case after more than 10 years, although law enforcement officers in Tennessee and Ohio kept plugging away. Earlier this year, they happened upon her alias on a computer database and, after a swift and meticulous investigation, apprehended her in the parking lot of a Columbus athletic club.

Today, Knudsen is not the only law enforcement agent who believes that Freshwater deserves leniency. This week, Tommy Lewis, a retired agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, appeared on the Montel show, arguing on her behalf. Lewis had worked on the Freshwater case, but was not involved in her apprehension. “I don’t agree with what he says and he doesn’t speak for the T.B.I.,” says Greg Elliott, the agent who finally tracked down Freshwater. “The T.B.I.’s position is that she was convicted of a crime and prison is exactly where she is supposed to be.”

But if Bob Ritchie, Freshwater’s Knoxville attorney, does as expected and lobbies the governor’s office for clemency, Knudsen’s and Lewis’ insights might come in handy. Interestingly, as one of the state’s most prominent defense attorneys, Ritchie has often been on the other side of Knudsen, whose job it is to build cases against the kinds of people whom Ritchie represents. “I have tremendous respect for Richard,” Ritchie says. “Ultimately, I would hope that those in authority will listen to people like Dick and others who have carefully and objectively reviewed the case.”

For his part, Knudsen does not say that Freshwater deserves absolute clemency. He does think, however, that her case should be reviewed. Not long after her escape, Knudsen thought that Freshwater, a high school dropout with a fondness for exploitative men, would either be quickly apprehended or turn up dead, perhaps caught up in a dangerous prostitution ring. That he has since been proven wrong clearly has had an effect on him. “You have a woman with no marketable skills and a passive personality. What are her chances?” he asks rhetorically. “This is a triumph of the human spirit. I’ll take my hat off to her. She beat incredibly long odds, and we pulled out our whole bag of tricks to find her.”

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