Merle W. Unger Jr., the master of escapes who was sentenced to life in Maryland for killing a Hagerstown police officer, has escaped an eighth time -- this time from a Florida prison a month before he was to return here to complete his murder sentence.
Unger, 41, of Chambersburg, Pa., escaped about 4:30 p.m. Monday from the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia, Fla., Maj. James Jacobs, the chief correctional officer there, said last night.
Jacobs said Unger was working in a "vocational horticulture" area outside the main prison compound but within the prison's perimeter.
"He got ahold of a pair of modified wire cutters and cut a fence and crawled through it," Jacobs said.
Another inmate, Richard Frazier, 29, who was serving 70 years for armed robbery and grand theft, also escaped. He was captured without incident about 5:30 a.m. yesterday in a wooded area 12 miles southwest of the prison, Jacobs said.
Frazier gave no clues as to Unger's whereabouts. "He just said they split up so they would have a 50-50 opportunity that one would get away," Jacobs said.
At the time of the escapes, there were no guards in the vocational area, only instructors, Jacobs said. An officer at the prison's back gate, who returns inmates to their cells, noticed a discrepancy in the number of returning inmates when the escape was discovered.
Jacobs said up to 150 lawmen, at least six bloodhounds and a light airplane have joined the hunt. There also has been surveillance of Unger's girlfriend's residence in Florida, Jacobs said.
Unger's brother, David Unger, and sister, Barbara Rexroth, of Chambersburg, Pa., had served jail time for abetting Unger's past escapes. Last night, David Unger, reached by telephone in Pennsylvania, gave no comment on his brother's latest escape.
"I guess he decided he didn't like us anymore and left," Jacobs said, adding that Unger was "a model inmate" who was "well-versed in plants."
In Florida, Unger was serving a 30-year term for burglary, aggravated assault, grand theft and grand auto theft for an August 1981 robbery. He had been transferred in 1988 to the DeSoto prison in southern Florida from the maximum-security Florida State Prison after he earned credit to be placed in a lower security facility, Jacobs said.
When Unger was arrested in Florida in 1981, he had been on the run for a month following a dramatic escape from Patuxent Institution in Jessup. He had just been transferred to Patuxent from the Maryland Penitentiary and was awaiting evaluation to determine if he qualified for Patuxent's psychotherapy program.
In Maryland, Unger was serving life plus 15 years for the December 1975 murder of Hagerstown City Patrolman Donald R. Kline. Kline, who was off duty at the time, interrupted a holdup at a Hagerstown grocery store and was shot three times in the chest during a subsequent struggle in an alley.
The judge who sentenced Unger to life in December 1976 called him "a case-hardened criminal."
Jacobs said Unger was going to be released "within a month" to Maryland authorities to complete his sentence for the Hagerstown murder.
Escapes are nothing new to Unger, who once said in a 1981 newspaper article: "I just like my freedom. All I want is to be left alone."
In another interview, Unger, who sawed through prison bars and who scaled 40-foot walls to freedom, claimed there was nothing daring about his escapes.
He admitted that life on the run has been hard because police always watch the homes of his family and friends.
While on the loose, Unger said he always stayed at motels and when he returned to his Pennsylvania home, he wore wigs and false whiskers.
Unger said he always got caught, not because he wasn't ready for freedom, but because "I tried to move too fast while I was out. You can't make up for lost time."
By 1981, Unger had escaped at least seven times from various jails and prisons in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Six of those escapes were before 1977, and on two other occasions, he was caught preparing to escape.
In his home town of Greencastle, people once sold T-shirts encouraging, "Run, Merle, Run!"
He became "sort of a folk hero," Blake E. Martin, Unger's friend and former public defender, once said. "Kids play Merle Unger instead of cops and robbers."
During his previous escapes, Unger has used pliers and escaped through air ducts. He escaped from the Washington County Detention Center just days before he was to stand trial for Kline's murder, and was recaptured in Orlando, Fla., a month later when police responded to a burglar alarm.
During his 1981 escape from Patuxent, he and two other inmates commandeered a garbage truck and drove through an open gate. The other two inmates were caught the same day, but Unger wasn't captured until a month later in Clearwater, Fla., following a pre-dawn break-in at a gun shop.
"I think he's always thinking about escape," Martin once said. "I think he thinks about escapes 24 hours a day. . . . He's just like a cat."
Unger, in a 1981 interview, said he didn't like the heavy publicity surrounding his prison breaks. "When publicity follows you, there's no escaping it. I don't like it, I don't like it."