Love for son leads to arrest of father

October 24, 1994|By Peter Hermann and Kate Shatzkin | Peter Hermann and Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writers

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- Were it not for the intense love Gordon Peal felt for his son, he still would be living a quiet life in this Atlanta suburb, selling kitchen tables and sofas at Roberd's Furniture.

He would have celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday with his fiancee. And he'd be making plans to open his own furniture store.

But the Baltimore native didn't like the way his former girlfriend was treating their child, Jamaal, so he triggered a custody battle. In a settlement, he won visitation rights.

The ex-girlfriend, in turn, let the world in on a little secret that led to his arrest last month.

Gordon Peal was, in fact, Anthony D. Francis, a long-sought felon from Maryland -- on the state's 10-most-wanted list in 1991.

His holdup of an East Baltimore liquor store owner in 1976 sparked an extraordinary chain of events that haunt those involved with Francis to this day.

It sent the man Francis robbed and two of his relatives to prison, after they killed another man they believed was connected to the robbery. It led to a prison dispute that ended with Francis being charged with killing another inmate.

And though he was acquitted of the murder charge, a residue of enemies and fear remained. That prompted him to walk away from the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit on Aug. 10, 1986 -- despite being close to a parole hearing after serving half of a 20-year sentence -- and into a new life.

He became a successful salesman and doting father -- complete with credit cards, a driver's license, a birth certificate, a job paying $28,000 a year and a voter registration card.

Now, Francis, recaptured, is in the Gwinnett County Jail and is expected to be back in Maryland any day. He might have to serve the remainder of his 20-year robbery sentence and up to 10 years if an escape charge is filed and he is convicted.

"I gave up the right to be out here and free because of my son," Francis said in an interview from the jail Thursday. "I ask that they restore my liberty and freedom and let me go back to my life.

"The acts were done out of ignorance," Francis said. "It led to a robbery, an assault and a murder. Everybody's life was destroyed."

Many people who know him agree. Several co-workers plan to fly to Maryland at their own expense to plead that he has paid his debt to society. Even the man Francis robbed in 1976 wishes him well.

Maryland correctional officials won't comment on whether Francis will have to complete his sentence. "We stand ready to receive him whenever he comes back to the state of Maryland," said Division of Correction spokeswoman Maxine Eldridge.

Davis R. Ruark, state's attorney for Wicomico County, where the escape occurred, said his office likely would weigh both the circumstances of Francis' walkaway and the events afterward in deciding whether to pursue escape charges.

"This guy was out in the open," said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. "He got a job. He didn't try to hide. He just fooled people into believing he was a different person, and he had the paperwork to prove it. He got by until someone ratted on him. I think he has to pay his debt."

The saga began Halloween night, 1976, at the home of Ellsworth Jackson, who ran a small East Baltimore liquor store.

Mr. Jackson was about to enter his home in the 1400 block of N. Linwood Ave. when he encountered two anxious young men -- one with a shotgun, one with a pistol.

They took his wallet, a ring and a watch, none of which really mattered to him. But then they went for another ring. It was gold with a diamond cluster, a birthday present from Mr. Jackson's wife.

"This ring is what changed my whole life, right here," Mr. Jackson said last week, fingering it.

The robbers made him lie on the ground as they ran away and fired shots into a neighbor's door. But Mr. Jackson thought only about getting his ring back.

He went around the neighborhood asking business owners if they had seen it. In his travels, he heard that Albert Hardy, a neighborhood acquaintance known as "Bobie," planned the robbery, although he was not there.

Mr. Jackson, two of his brothers-in-law and a friend went looking for Mr. Hardy, Francis and a third man later convicted of the robbery, David Harris. Mr. Jackson says it was "just to talk to them, to see if I could get my ring back."

But the group took along a rifle, shotgun and pistol in case something happened. It did. Mr. Jackson, now 56, said that when his van pulled up next to the three men, one of them fired a shotgun. Mr. Jackson's group returned fire. When it was over, Mr. Hardy was dead.

Mr. Jackson eventually got the ring back -- while awaiting trial for the slaying. He served two years of a 12-year prison sentence for Mr. Hardy's killing; his brothers-in-law each served about four years in prison.

Meanwhile, Francis, who pleaded guilty to his part in the holdup, was having problems at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where he was serving his sentence.

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