Md. fugitive to surrender, his wife says

Burglar made new life in Arizona

September 28, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A burglar who escaped from a Maryland prison 22 years ago and quietly built a new life in the Arizona desert is believed to be on his way back to Baltimore to surrender to authorities.

James A. Zajonc, who has lived under the name Paul D. Robinson for more than two decades, walked away from a work detail at Maryland House of Correction in Jessup in 1979. He was four years into a nine-year sentence he received after admitting to about 40 burglaries in Baltimore County and Baltimore City - many in Mount Vernon.

Now, according to his wife and a childhood friend, he's making a cross-country trip to surrender on escape charges. Maryland State Police are waiting to see whether he'll show up.

Zajonc's journey occurs seven years after Maryland passed up an opportunity to take him into custody. In 1994, after a brush with the law in Arizona, Zajonc caught a break when Gov. William Donald Schaefer declined to extradite him. Thinking he was free and clear, Zajonc married the mother of his newborn son.

But his past returned to haunt him in May when he was arrested on marijuana possession charges and a Maryland warrant surfaced on an Arizona police computer. Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants the escaped prisoner back.

Maryland's decision to pursue extradition received an unsympathetic hearing in an Arizona court. Judge Gilberto Figueroa of the Pinal County Superior Court refused Sept. 18 to allow authorities to serve a Maryland warrant on Zajonc (pronounced ZY-ence).

Instead, the judge ordered Zajonc, 46, to surrender to Maryland authorities within 10 days. Today is the 10th day.

Catherine Robinson, Zajonc's wife, said that as of yesterday morning her husband was in Arkansas, expecting to arrive in Maryland as early as last night. She said Maryland's decision to send her husband back to prison was "dirty-handed."

"He basically rehabilitated himself," she said.

Court records from Arizona paint the picture of a man who was trying to build a new life after a troubled childhood in Baltimore. But the records show Zajonc was not always successful in holding to the straight and narrow. He had several brushes with the law during the 1980s, though nothing that resulted in a criminal conviction or brought his fugitive status to light.

In 1993, he was charged under the name of Robinson with aggravated assault after a Jeep he was driving overturned - seriously injuring a passenger identified as his nephew. According to court records, Zajonc admitted he had been drinking before the accident.

The assault charge brought his escape and outstanding Maryland warrant to the attention of Arizona authorities, who held him for about six months awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings.

Through much of 1994, his Arizona relatives and friends wrote letters urging Schaefer to drop the extradition attempt. "People from all over were writing what a great guy he was," said John Sando, Zajonc's Arizona lawyer.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said state records show that Schaefer declined to extradite for budgetary reasons. Maryland was recovering from a severe budget crunch, and the state would have had to pay to send police to return him.

A spokesman for Schaefer, now state comptroller, said the former governor and top aides from his administration have no recollection of the case.

In October 1994, an Arizona judge sentenced Zajonc to four years' probation on the assault charge. The judge showed leniency after receiving a vivid description of his upbringing.

According to a presentencing report, Zajonc was abused by his stepfather and suffered from epileptic seizures through his youth. When he was 12, he was removed from the family home after teachers noticed his bruises.

Zajonc told authorities he spent most of his teen-age years in juvenile institutions, the report says. His problems continued into adulthood as he supported himself through a series of burglaries in Baltimore, Baltimore County and Ocean City.

In 1974, he was sentenced to seven years for breaking and entering in Baltimore County. In 1975, a city judge extended the term to nine years as part of a plea bargain.

He had served about half his sentence in 1979 when he walked away from a work detail at the medium-security unit at Jessup.

His wife, who said she has known him for almost 20 years, said Zajonc told her he acquired a birth certificate in the name of Paul Robinson, taking the name from a child's grave in Oklahoma. For years, he escaped detection while working as a driller in the oilfields of the Southwest.

By mid-1994, Zajonc seems to have substantially turned his life around. "He appears to have overcome the numerous problems he experienced while growing up and has made great strides in his own rehabilitation," said the case worker who prepared the presentence report.

Mrs. Robinson said that since Maryland passed up the chance to extradite her husband in 1994, the two have led a "boring" life with their son, Cord, 7. She said they live in a "ratty old trailer" on 40 acres off a dirt road in remote Cascabel, Ariz., where Zajonc operates a tire repair business. "We're not rich, but we were happy," she said.

Since Maryland decided to pursue the extradition, Mrs. Robinson has been writing letters to Glendening asking him to let her husband return to his family. But the governor is adamant: Zajonc must turn himself in.

"Our policy is that if you escape from prison with time remaining to be served to repay your debt to the citizens of Maryland ... we will enforce the judgments of the court that you should be in prison," Morrill said. He noted that Schaefer did not commute Zajonc's sentence.

A childhood friend of Zajonc, Larry Zito of Baltimore, said he hopes the state shows compassion. "Five years back in jail could ruin this man's life," he said.

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