It took the state 46 years to find Sam Turner, even though he wasn’t exactly hiding.
Turner, now 75, walked away from a prison work detail in 1951 and lived under his real name, held a job, applied for Social Security benefits and had a driver’s license. He was even arrested for drunken driving and sent home.
By the time the law finally caught up with Turner while he was watching television in his den Monday night, authorities didn’t feel good about it.
On Tuesday, state Corrections commissioner Wayne Garner granted an emergency special leave that allows Turner to go free until the parole board can consider him for special clemency.
“I told them that years have covered his past, that age and family have made him a different man,” Garner said. “Continued punishment for Sam Turner serves no good purpose.”
As he was walking outside his home Tuesday, Turner appeared happy. “Doing pretty good! Couldn’t be much better.”
Turner was arrested during a check of driver’s licenses as part of a statewide crackdown on escapees that has rounded up 202 fugitives in the past two years - including 10 who escaped more than 20 years ago.
Turner was getting his shoes on even before fugitive squad agent Lee Blitch told him he would have to come back to prison.
“Mmmm … ‘51 … I can’t recall that, but …” With that, Turner took a cane and hobbled toward the door with his grown grandson at his elbow. Blitch dispensed with the standard practice of handcuffing a prisoner.
According to state records, Turner has been free longer than any other recaptured fugitive in Georgia.
Turner had been sentenced to up to five years in prison for voluntary manslaughter after he shot and killed Charlie Lipford in May 1947. He was paroled after a year, but was back in prison a few months later when he was convicted of burglary.
On May 7, 1951, he was at a Dodge County work camp when he “asked to be excused and never returned.” A reward of $25 was offered for his capture.
Turner’s criminal history was apparently as much of a shock to his family as to the rest of Lincolnton, a small town about 40 miles northwest of Augusta. By all appearances he’d established a normal life. He married, became a church deacon, worked as a machinist and retired.
Betty Jo Turner, the wife of Turner’s cousin, said Tuesday she had no idea Turner was being taken to prison as she watched from her house across the street as officers put him in an unmarked car.
“They were taking pictures and things,” Betty Jo Turner said. “I said, they must have just won a car.”
“Everybody really liked him,” she said. “We didn’t have no idea.”
She said Turner had been in poor health and had a stroke several years ago.
Turner worked for 14 years as a machinist for Oxford Co., a sewing plant. His former manager, Wilmer Byrd, had no idea that Turner was a fugitive.
“He’s one of the finest employees that I’ve ever had,” Byrd said.
Wayne Epps, owner of the Dixie Quick convenience store across the street from the now-defunct sewing plant, said Turner would often stop in for Cokes, crackers and hot dogs.
“If you knew him and called him up, he’d do sewing machine repair for you,” Epps said. “He fixed my mother’s sewing machine.”