Mistaken identity blamed for man's legal nightmare

January 13, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Meet Robert Stephen Morris -- Westminster resident, lifelong Marylander, father of two, and a data entry operator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for nearly two decades.

Now meet Robert E. Morse -- alleged check-kiter, wanted fugitive, and a man authorities say bilked a Panama City, Fla., bank out of nearly $4,000 five years ago.

Until New Year's Day, when a Sykesville police officer stopped Mr. Morris to give him a speeding ticket, neither had been properly introduced.

But so far as Maryland and Florida authorities are concerned, no introductions are necessary. They claim Mr. Morris actually is Mr. Morse.

And Mr. Morris -- who insists that he has never been to Bay County, Fla., and has never opened a checking account there -- is furious.

"I feel like I'm in a bottomless pit with no chance of escape," the 42-year-old Mr. Morris said yesterday from his office at APL. "This whole system is like a Gestapo."

When Mr. Morris was stopped that night, he was late delivering a pizza for Domino's, where he works to earn extra money to support his

teen-age daughters.

After Sykesville Officer Glenn Ruff issued Mr. Morris a warning ticket for traveling 13 miles over the 25-mile speed limit on Obrecht Road, the officer told Mr. Morris to remain still and place his hands on his steering wheel.

"There are other officers, and they have their guns pointed at you," Mr. Morris recalls Officer Ruff telling him.

After nearly an hour of sitting motionless in the 33-degree night, Mr. Morris was arrested and charged with being a Florida fugitive.

Mr. Morris spent New Year's night and the next two days in the Carroll County Detention Center awaiting a bail review hearing. On Jan. 4, he was released without having to post bond.

3' "This is the nightmare of my life,"

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he said.

Officer Ruff could not be reached for comment, and Sykesville Police Chief Wallace P. Mitchell referred all questions to the Carroll State's Attorney's Office.

Assistant State's Attorney Gail Kessler, who argued against Mr. Morris' release from jail, would only say that "the state's position is that Mr. Morris is the man wanted by Florida."

Bay County Sheriff's investigators have been looking for Mr. Morse since May 13, 1987, said a detective who has worked the case.

"Mr. Morse lived in South Carolina for a while before moving down here," said Detective Mark Dufresne. "He set up an account at a Bay Bank branch here, deposited a check from his closed account in South Carolina and wrote checks against those funds. When the checks began bouncing, he disappeared."

It was unclear how Officer Ruff found the warrant seeking Mr. Morse. A faxed copy of the warrant in Mr. Morris' Carroll District Court file shows no known address for Mr. Morse.

The man sought by authorities in Florida is described in the warrant as 5 feet, 11 inches tall, about 165 pounds and "tall and lanky." His birth date is listed as April 13, 1950.

Mr. Morris' Maryland drivers license describes him as 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 163 pounds. His birth date also is April 13, 1950.

"How many people out there born on April 13 named Bob are there?" Mr. Morris asked.

"Geez, you see this kind of stuff on TV, but you never expect it to happen. I can't believe what has happened."

Mr. Morris, who grew up in Prince George's County, has lived in Westminster for eight years. He and his former wife share custody of their two daughters, but the two high school students live with him.

"He's got his daughters, he's got his jobs, he's got $140,000 equity in his home," said Mr. Morris' defense lawyer, Stephen P. Bourexis.

"He's not going to leave, and he's certainly not the criminal Florida is seeking."

An extradition hearing is set for Feb. 4 in Carroll District Court.

In preparation for the hearing, Mr. Bourexis is collecting time cards and affidavits that place Mr. Morris in Maryland at the time of the alleged crime.

"We're going to have to prove that he wasn't there," Mr. Bourexis said.

"This is very frightening. It could happen to any one of us."

Detective Dufresne said the Bay County Sheriff's office sent a set of Mr. Morse's fingerprints to the Carroll State's Attorney's Office last week. Authorities here declined to comment on the fingerprints.

Mr. Morris said he is confident that Mr. Morse's fingerprints and time records from his own job will clear him.

"I know I'm not a criminal," he said. "And I know I wasn't in Florida back then."

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