Violent past catches up with fugitive

Murder: After decades eluding the law across the nation, a Baltimore killer returns to prison -- and the past she tried to hide.

January 15, 1999|By Scott Shane, Devon Spurgeon and Michael James | Scott Shane, Devon Spurgeon and Michael James,SUN STAFF

By the time police caught up with Bertha Theresa Marie Keene in Florida on Dec. 1, nearly 20 years had passed since the night she used a rope of bedsheets to flee the maximum security women's prison in Jessup. It was her fourth successful escape, a record that still stands.

Thirty years had passed since, in an LSD-alcohol haze, she fatally shot the doorman at a Waverly nightclub for refusing to let her in, a crime that got her a life sentence.

And it had been even longer since she emerged from a troubled childhood to become a dancer on The Block at Blaze Starr's Two O'Clock Club.

From the hard-bitten world of drugs and prostitution in Baltimore and the grim regimen of prison, Keene's life on the run took her on a sort of New Age fugitive trail: from the sailboat she lived on in the Florida Keys as Pat Leno, to the City of the Sun commune in New Mexico where she called herself Sheila Williams and worked as an herbal healer, to the organic coffee farm in Honaunau, Hawaii, where she was known as Rose Guest.

The friends she made along the way say the Baltimore street tough was transformed into a gentle, spiritual person, now 50, who worked uncomplainingly, generously offered help and comfort and loved the son she was raising.

Michael Craig, who owns the Rooster Farms coffee fields where Keene worked in the early 1990s, realized Keene's true identity only when he saw her on the television show "America's Most Wanted" shortly after she left the island.

"We dropped our jaw when we found out," Craig said. "She's a very hard worker and such a nice person. No hint of anything wrong. She's very healthy, body and mind both."

Helen Webber, who spent the early 1980s with Keene at City of the Sun and gave her shelter for six months in the mid-'90s, says she sensed early on that" Sheila" had a hidden past and eventually learned the truth. But that did not change her opinion.

"She was running, running for her life. She had an obsessive fear of going back to prison," said Webber, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska. "But I know this much: She's not a menace. She has much more to give and does give much more than the average person."

But for the shattered Baltimore family of Melvin "Lucky" Luckart, the cheerful father and avid fisherman whose life she took when he was 29, she remains a killer, and one whose escape and freedom made them bitter over justice undone.

"I grew up pretty much taking care of myself and wondering what it would have been like to have a dad," said Roxanne Thrift, a slight woman with short blond hair who herself is now 29. "When they caught her, I said, `Now she'll know what it's like to spend her life without her son, just like I spent my life without my father.' "

Roxanne was 3 months old when her father died, and she blames her troubled life, in part, on his murder. She recalls, at age 11, poring over old news articles about the murder, the trial and the prison escapes at the Catonsville library. In tragic symmetry, she tumbled down the same path as her father's killer, getting into LSD and other drugs and ending up a dancer on The Block.

Now married, working in a VFW kitchen and living with her in-laws in Carney, Thrift says she treasures her father's fishing tackle box, which as a teen-ager she converted into a makeup box. "It's the only thing of his I've ever had," she said.

`Disciplinary segregation'

Today, Keene sits in solitary confinement at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, resuming her life term for murder and awaiting trial on an escape charge that carries a maximum penalty of 10 additional years. While in theory she eventually could be paroled, "the majority of people in Maryland sentenced to life die in prison," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Keene, who was prosecuted under the name Theresa Grosso and is identified by that name in prison records, is on "disciplinary segregation" as punishment for her 1979 escape, said Warden Patricia Schupple. Keene is not permitted to make telephone calls or have visitors for six months, Schupple said. She could not be interviewed for this article.

But her voice can be heard in letters she has written since three Maryland state troopers flew to Levy County, Fla., and brought her back to prison Dec. 8. The letters were written to David Swanson, 56, a Florida real estate investor who met her in 1996 and planned to marry her in April. Swanson has hired a lawyer and a private investigator to see what can be done to win her freedom or at least shorten her term.

"God works in mysterious ways," she wrote to Swanson on Dec. 9. "All the hopes, beliefs, and longings that the good I had done in the past 19 years would make a difference seem to be weighing very heavy in my heart, spirit and being at this time."

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