A man with a Southern accent and an odd name, Jubal Burke, moved to North Idaho some 17 years ago and embedded himself into the Elmira community.
Burke cut firewood, trimmed trees, built fences and tithed to the local church in the hamlet north of Sandpoint.
In 2015, he hand-scraped the logs for a wedding trellis under which he married Stacy White, the regional supervisor of child protective services for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The couple spent most of their time on the Elmira farm, but they also lived some weekends in her house in Hayden.
But that simple life unraveled in September when federal agents raided the farm and unmasked Burke as Eric L. Corbett, a 45-year-old from Georgia who was convicted of felony witness tampering in Florida and vanished after he walked out of a federal prison in Mississippi in April 2000.
Corbett remains in custody on a new charge of being a felon in possession of firearms, all of them guns for hunting that federal agents say they found on his Elmira farm. His lawyer, public defender Colin Prince, said Corbett should be let out of jail pending his upcoming trial. He would never leave his wife and neighbors, Prince said. All of them support Corbett, even though he had deceived them for years.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled Monday that Corbett’s history makes him too much of a risk to again flee prosecution.
“You vamoosed. You didn’t want to be under the weight of that remaining sentence,” Bush told Corbett via teleconference from Boise. “You were able to hide in plain sight.
“I am not swayed, although I’ve thought very carefully about it, that you would not choose to flee again … because you have been living an enormous lie all this time.”
Gun in a bar
According to court records, Corbett served 41 months in federal prison for a witness-tampering conviction stemming from a massive drug-ring investigation in 1997 along the Florida-Georgia line that netted 25 people including a local sheriff.
At the time, Corbett, a former U.S. Marine, lived on the family farm he inherited in his mid-20s in Echols County, Georgia.
But in February 1996, Corbett had a confrontation with a “local drug-addict named Burl Bergeron” about some recent thefts, Prince wrote. Two of Bergeron’s friends intervened and Corbett pulled a handgun to protect himself against the three men before he backed out and left the bar.
More than a year later, Corbett learned he had been indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and two counts of witness tampering. It turned out Bergeron had been working as an informant and his two friends at the bar were undercover police officers, Prince wrote.
As a result of the charges, Corbett sold his farm to pay for legal bills and his first wife left him.
A jury later convicted Corbett on only one of the tampering charges for which he served about 3 1/2 years in a federal prison in Mississippi. Upon his release, Corbett was ordered to return to Florida for three years of supervised release.
“Before Mr. Corbett’s release, certain local Echols County officers let it be known they would target Mr. Corbett for re-incarceration when he returned,” Prince said. “He felt he had no choice but to flee.”
A girlfriend, who would later help him buy a farm in Elmira, picked up Corbett and they set out for North Idaho.
Laurie Cook, 75, said she first remembers meeting a man she knew as Jubal Burke some 17 years ago when he arrived at the Elmira store, which at the time also included a cafe.
Corbett hit it off with Cook’s husband because they had similar personalities and they both loved all things about farming, she said.
Corbett would “come over and visit and do things for us,” Cook said.
Holly Foderaro, who is Cook’s daughter, said she first met the man she knew as Jubal Burke some nine years ago.
“He’s our best neighbor and our best friend,” she said.
Apparently without much money, Corbett told the locals that he was unable to pay to have his washing machine fixed.
“We started doing his laundry,” Foderaro said, which has continued “for probably two years. He reads his Bible every day. He prays for us when we asked him to. He follows biblical laws better than we do.”
Still, Cook testified Monday that he sensed even before the raid in September that something wasn’t quite right about Corbett.
“I had a suspicion that things had been different in his past,” she said.
Hiding in plain sight
Corbett’s Idaho farm was purchased by a previous wife, who left years ago. It’s currently owned by JB Northern Land Co. Inc., although Corbett is not listed as one of the corporate officers.
Judge Bush noted that up until two years ago, the president was listed as a real estate agent from Eagle, Idaho. The past two years, the president is listed as Stacy White, even though she claims that she didn’t know her husband as Eric Corbett until his September arrest.
According to court records, Corbett met White in 2012. The couple married in 2015 in a religious ceremony that did not include a marriage license.
Judge Bush noted that the wedding was yet another example, including no driver’s license, tax information, land ownership or even wedding documents, where Corbett would allow even his alias to be used in what would be a public document.
“In my experience, it is extremely unusual for someone to go through a religious ceremony and not obtain a marriage license as part of that,” Bush said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Traci Whelan said she was not sure how the U.S. Marshals Service finally tracked Corbett down. But after his arrest in September, he was returned to Florida where he went before U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker to answer for skipping out on three years of probation stemming from his previous conviction.
After reading the letters of support from his Elmira neighbors and from White, Walker found Corbett guilty of violating the terms of his release but sentenced him to “time served, with no supervision to follow.”
With his past settled, Corbett now faces between 15 to 21 months in prison for a gun possession charge.
“He was afraid that if he returned (to Florida) he would never see another free day again. He is not going to jeopardize his wife or his life by fleeing,” Prince said. “He can be trusted. This is coming from people who knew him under an assumed name for 17 years.”
Whelan noted that Corbett created the legal mess haunting him.
“He may believe he was unjustifiably convicted,” Whelan said, and “moved off the grid to the wilds of Idaho to get away from crimes he didn’t commit.”
“If this defendant, who successfully fled and lived as a fugitive for 16 years, is not a threat to flee, it’s hard to imagine one that is,” she said.