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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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1995 fingerprint led to escapee
Friends say the he was quiet and hard working.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007
TAMPA -- The rail-thin man with the weathered face and ponytail didn't have many friends and rarely sought attention.
He worked hard at his job as kitchen manager of a South Tampa sports bar and paid his weekly rent on time, sometimes in advance.
"Cordial, but not chatty," said his landlord.
Michael Hess, 57, lived this nondescript life by using a dead man's name, police said.
He might have continued that existence. But a fingerprint from a 1995 marijuana arrest ended the charade Thursday.
The Florida Department of Corrections recently matched the print to one taken from Hess while he was a prisoner. Hess escaped in 1979 after serving eight years. He had been sent to prison for at least 35 years on charges of armed robbery, grand larceny and marijuana possession.
The match was the detective work of a cold case unit the department formed in May to track down escaped convicts, said spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. There are 277 cases. So far, 40 have been recaptured but are in other jail systems. Another 16 cases are closed because the convicts are dead. In the past month, investigators have tracked down five convicts who had escaped for more than 20 years, Plessinger said.
Hess was one of those.
For 28 years, he eluded recapture by posing as Charles Swiger, a man who died in 1973 at age 52, police said. Hess used the man's name to get jobs and rent apartments, and that's how people knew him.
"I was stunned to hear about this," said his landlord, Richard Edgeworth. "He was a terrific tenant. Not your typical thug."
Hess paid $160 a week to Edgeworth to stay in a 400-square-foot apartment on Cleveland Street.
"He was always alone," said a neighbor, Don Donaldson. "I felt sorry for the guy."
Donaldson said Hess would walk slowly to a nearby Walgreens every afternoon and come back with a 12-pack of Coke.
Hess had a job as cook and kitchen manager for the Press Box on Dale Mabry. For the past six years, Hess, posing as Swiger, was known as a model employee, said Jason Loughran, a manager at the bar. He'd work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Hess would prepare the bar's food for the night and clock out before it got rowdy.
Tampa police Detective Rick Cochran said he received a tip from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Thursday. The agency knew Michael Hess' alias and one of his old addresses.
From there, Cochran and police headed to Meadowview Circle near Town 'N Country, where they found people who remembered Hess when he lived there in a mobile home decades ago. But no one knew where he was.
Police kept making calls. They called as far away as Ohio. But they finally found a woman, south of Gandy Boulevard, who was Hess' ex-girlfriend from years ago. She remembered him working at the Press Box.
He was still working there Thursday when police arrived and found him with a small amount of marijuana.
Plessinger said even if he's the model inmate, the earliest he could get out of prison is in 2018, when he'll be 68.
Those who knew Hess as the quiet but responsible Swiger are sad to see him go.
"I wish him the best," Edgeworth said. "He made it out in the world for nearly 30 years and tried to do right. I hope the court recognized that he made an effort."
Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report.