Merle Unger, just recaptured, was living out a dream

November 13, 1990|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Evening Sun Staff Melody Simmons and Frank D. Roylance contributed to this story.

When Merle W. Unger Jr. was younger, one of his dreams was to be jailed in all 50 states so he could escape from all 50.

"I think he probably could do it," said Blake E. Martin, the public defender who befriended Unger after he represented him at age 17 in his hometown of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Unger, 41, hasn't escaped in all 50 states, but he has done so in three: Pennsylvania, Maryland and most recently in Florida. Today, he back in custody, in Virginia, after wrecking his car near Strasburg.

Unger, who killed a Hagerstown police officer in 1975, had been free for eight days after escaping with another inmate from the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia, Fla., a small town in the citrus belt southeast of Tampa. It was Unger's eighth prison breakout.

Unger and the other escapee used a pair of modified wire cutters to cut a hole in a perimeter fence Nov. 5 and then crawled through, prison officials said.

The other inmate was recaptured 13 hours after the escape in woods 12 miles from the prison.

Prison and law agencies in Florida mounted an intense manhunt, said Warren Cornell, assistant superintendent of the DeSoto Correctional Institution. Authorities had set up a surveillance on the Tampa-area home of Vicki Unger, the woman Merle married in prison in 1988.

Unger met his wife after she paid $5 for his address through a prison correspondence club, Martin said. They have two children, Merle 3rd and an 11-month-old daughter, the lawyer said.

John Shaw, superintendent of the Arcadia prison, had speculated earlier that Unger would be arrested while on the run if he followed a pattern established in his previous seven jailbreaks.

"It's been a pattern of his to get back in trouble again," Shaw said. "He surfaces again about 30 days later."

Up north, Unger escaped six times from prisons and jails in the 1970s and once in the 1980s.

His breakout last week was the first at the 970-inmate Arcadia prison in several years, Shaw said.

Unger was serving a 30-year term there for burglary, aggravated assault, grand theft and grand theft auto for an August 1981 robbery. He was due to be sent to Maryland by Dec. 1 to start serving a life sentence for the December 1975 killing of Hagerstown police officer Donald R. Kline, Shaw said.

Kline was shot three times in the chest in an alley after he interrupted a holdup of a grocery store in Hagerstown.

Unger escaped from jail just days before he was to stand trial for Kline's murder and was captured a month later in Orlando, Fla., when police responded to a burglar alarm.

In 1981, several years after he was convicted of Kline's murder, Unger escaped again, from the Patuxent Institution. He was captured a month later in Clearwater, Fla., following a gun store break-in.

Martin, 61, still a public defender, said Unger may have escaped this time because he didn't want to return to Maryland. He said Unger likes Florida's warm climate. "He loves it there," Martin said.

Martin said Unger enjoys escaping, but he had worried that Unger would get killed on the run. "I don't think he intends to hurt anyone, but the situation he creates is a danger to him and everybody else," he said.

Martin said Unger is a family man who loves to write poetry and values freedom, even though he has been imprisoned almost continually since he was 17.

Martin said that in a July 1981 poem titled, "What Would You Do?" Unger wrote: Some say I'm uncool, or even a fool, because I escaped again, but tell me true, what would you do, if your life was at an end?

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