Man jailed in mistaken identity case Florida authorities had killed warrant

March 11, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

A Westminster man spent four days in the county jail in January in a case of mistaken identity because authorities in Florida had never told anyone that they had killed a warrant that led to the man's arrest.

Robert Stephen Morris was arrested New Year's Day by Sykesville police Officer Glenn Ruff during a routine traffic stop. The officer believed Mr. Morris was Robert E. Morse, who was wanted in Florida for grand theft tied to a 1987 check-kiting scheme.

A state prosecutor here said yesterday that she dropped charges against Mr. Morris on Feb. 5, after learning that officials in Panama City, Fla., had dropped the warrant and the grand theft charges against Mr. Morse last July.

Yesterday, the Bay County State's Attorney's Office in Panama City confirmed that the warrant for Mr. Morse, which was faxed to Officer Ruff by the Bay County Sheriff's Office, was no good when Mr. Morris, the Westminster man, was arrested.

"Incredible," said Mr. Morris' attorney, Joel Chasnoff. "This tends to make this whole incident even more unfortunate in how it has affected Mr. Morris."

Mr. Morris was reluctant to talk about his legal ordeal yesterday.

"We received notice about this a couple of weeks ago, but no one told us why," he said. "But I think it's better that you talk to my attorney."

Mr. Morris, 42, a data entry operator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for nearly 20 years, was scheduled for an extradition hearing in Carroll District Court on Feb. 4.

But the hearing was canceled, and Assistant State's Attorney Christy McFall dropped a Maryland fugitive charge against Mr. Morris the next day after she learned that Bay County had no active warrant for their grand theft suspect.

"The Carroll County State's Attorney's Office disposed of the charge against Mr. Morris upon finding out the charges were dropped by Florida," she said yesterday.

Mark Dufresne, a detective in the Bay County Sheriff's Office, nTC blamed Carroll County for not finding sufficient information to identify Mr. Morris as Mr. Morse. He said that is why the extradition hearing and fugitive charges were dropped.

"This is still an active investigation," the deputy said in a telephone interview yesterday.

But Lt. Jerry Girvin, a spokesman for the sheriff, said that wasn't so.

"The warrant was recalled in July," Lieutenant Girvin said.

An officer in the department's warrants section said Mr. Morse has two outstanding warrants for failing to appear on two bad check charges. But, Lieutenant Girvin said, Florida wouldn't extradite anyone wanted on those charges.

In January, Detective Dufresne told The Sun he had sent copies of Mr. Morse's fingerprints to the Carroll State's Attorney's Office. Yesterday, the detective said his office has never had Mr. Morse's prints.

Mr. Morris has maintained all along that he and the elusive Mr. Morse are not the same person, and that they share only their first name and birth date -- April 13, 1950.

Mr. Morris, who was born in Prince George's County and has lived in Westminster for eight years, is listed on his Maryland drivers license as 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 163 pounds.

The warrant that Detective Dufresne faxed to Officer Ruff by described Mr. Morse as 5 feet, 11 inches tall, about 165 pounds, and "tall and lanky."

"It was a nightmare," said Mr. Chasnoff, Mr. Morris' attorney. "I don't think you can ever get over that, being transformed to another world without fault."

Mr. Morris was stopped by Officer Ruff while delivering pizza for Domino's, where he works to earn extra money to support his two teen-age daughters.

After the officer 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.

Apparently, according to Ms. McFall, Officer Ruff ran a computer check on all names that are similar to Robert Morris with birth dates of April 13, 1950. That is how the officer found the grand theft warrant for Mr. Morse.

Mr. Morse had been sought by Bay County since May 13, 1987, Detective Dufresne said in January. He said Mr. Morse lived in South Carolina, moved to Panama City and opened an account at a Bay Bank branch there. He deposited a check from his closed account in South Carolina, the detective said, then wrote checks against them.

"When the checks began bouncing, he disappeared," the detective said.

Mr. Morris told The Sun in January that he was not in Florida when the alleged check-kiting offenses occurred. He said he had time cards from work and affidavits from colleagues to place him in Maryland at that time.

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

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