Photo may have delayed McBee's capture Outdated picture didn't show a beard

April 06, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

Two days before escaped prisoner Randy Eugene McBee allegedly broke into a home in Church Hill and sexually assaulted a woman, a resident of the town tried to persuade police that the fugitive had been in his family's convenience store.

But when Charles M. Rhodes Jr. called state police near Centreville to report his suspicions about a bearded and tattooed man who bought cigarettes, he was told the man could not be McBee. The fugitive was clean shaven, police told Mr. Rhodes, who is a sergeant with the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

A bearded McBee, who has tattoos on both arms, was arrested last Saturday in a tavern on the outskirts of Martinsburg, W.Va.

Since his escape from the Eastern Pre-Release Unit in Queen Anne's County on March 23, McBee has been linked to a string of crimes in West Virginia and Maryland -- including rape and robbery in Church Hill.

On Sunday police in West Virginia charged McBee, 38, with kidnapping, armed robbery, sexual assault, grand larceny and burglary. He is being held without bond in the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg.

Yesterday state police and corrections officials acknowledged that they are looking into allegations that tips to McBee's whereabouts on the Eastern Shore may have been ignored because initial descriptions of his appearance were inaccurate.

In photographs distributed by prison authorities to police and the news media shortly after he walked away from the prerelease unit near Church Hill, McBee is shown with short hair and no beard. Upon his arrest 11 days later, he had a full, neatly trimmed beard and hair that touched his shoulders.

Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the state police and the state Division of Correction, said yesterday that law enforcement officials are conducting an internal review into how the inaccurate description of McBee was released.

Citing the review, Mr. Sipes declined comment on whether the state police received tips from townspeople and on police response to McBee's escape.

The discrepancies in McBee's descriptions are troubling to many in Church Hill, a close-knit town of fewer than 500 people who occasionally are forced to keep an eye out for each other when prisoners walk away from the correctional facility. Some residents fear McBee was able to slip away because no one knew what he really looked like.

"I just went ballistic," said Mr. Rhodes. He said newspaper pictures of the bearded McBee taken after his capture matched the description of a man he told police was at his family-owned store on March 24, the day after McBee escaped. "We possibly had a shot at the guy Wednesday night."

On Friday, March 26, McBee allegedly broke into a Church Hill home, tied up a girl and an elderly woman and sexually assaulted another woman. Police said he fled the area in the family's car, which was recovered in West Virginia four days later.

After victims told police about the man who they said had assaulted them, authorities revised McBee's description to include a beard.

Mr. Rhodes said he stopped by his family's store in Church Hill after sundown on March 24 and two clerks told him a bearded man had bought a package of cigarettes a few minutes earlier. The clerks said that when the customer stuck out his arms, tattoos were revealed on his forearms.

The clerks had been on the lookout for a bearded man wearing a camouflage coat and a knit cap pulled tightly over his ears because another town resident, Marion L. Chance Jr., had told them by telephone that he had seen such a man walk from his back yard up the street toward the store.

By that time, state police, who had taken over the search for McBee, suspected that the escapee was responsible for two break-ins at the house of Scott MacGlashan on Tuesday and Wednesday. McBee reportedly stole a camouflage coat, a pair of jeans, a pair of hiking boots, two .38-caliber handguns and ammunition.

Mr. Chance said the man moved up the street as though he were trying to avoid being seen. "Every time he saw a car coming, he'd seek shelter," he said.

Considering the man's behavior suspicious, Mr. Chance said he called the store to alert the clerks.

He said he also called the local 911 emergency number to report the suspicious man. He said he asked to speak to the Maryland lTC state police near Centreville and gave a description of the man -- including his camouflage coat -- to a receptionist and requested that police investigate.

"As a result, no one showed up," he said.

Mr. Sipes refused a request by The Sun to listen to the 911 audio tape that may contain Mr. Chance's initial phone call. Mr. Sipes said he could not release the tape because it is part of the internal review.

Mr. Rhodes, who had learned from newspaper accounts that a prisoner had walked away from the prerelease unit the day before, said he called state police twice and reported what his clerks had told him about the customer. On both occasions, he said, police indicated they did not think the man was McBee.

"They said their man did not have a beard," said Mr. Rhodes. "They said they were acting on information they got from the Division of Correction that he did not have a beard." Mr. Rhodes said that apparently because the man seen in his store wore a beard, police decided not to respond to his call.

First Sgt. Curtis Benton of the state police barracks in Centreville acknowledged that the first pictures state police received of McBee showed the escapee without facial hair.

Mr. Rhodes, who has been a natural resources officer for 18 years, said he believes it was a bureaucratic blunder that may have prevented McBee's arrest before the crime spree.

"I'm not pointing the finger at anybody," he said. "But the system needs to be adjusted.

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