Fugitive from Md. surrenders to police

Burglar escaped work detail in '79, started over in Ariz.

September 30, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

After 22 years as a fugitive from Maryland justice, the man his Arizona neighbors knew as Paul Robinson surrendered yesterday and reluctantly resumed his identity as convicted burglar James A. Zajonc.

Driven from Baltimore by a childhood friend, Zajonc, a tall, lean man with a bushy mustache, arrived at the parking lot of the Maryland State Police barracks in Glen Burnie shortly after noon. "I just want to get it squared up and go back to my family," Zajonc, 46, said.

Then he walked in and introduced himself to Sgt. Philip Nolan, who was expecting him. Ten minutes later, Zajonc (pronounced "ZYE-ence") was put in a police car and taken to the House of Correction at Jessup, where he had walked away from a work detail in 1979.

From there, he was to be taken to the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore, where authorities will decide where to send him to resume the nine-year sentence he fled after 4 1/2 years. He also faces escape charges.

Zajonc's surrender occurred after a cross-country auto journey from Arizona, where a judge declined to extradite him Sept. 18 but ordered him to return to Maryland and deal with his legal problems here.

During the 22 years he was a fugitive, Zajonc married, had a son and worked as a rock driller in the oil fields of the Southwest. There is no evidence he resumed his burglary career. Most recently, he operated a backhoe service and tire shop in remote Cascabel, Ariz.

He said he complied with the judge's order for the sake of his wife, Catherine Robinson, and his son, Cord, who is 7.

A chance for extradition

Maryland had the opportunity to extradite Zajonc from Arizona in 1994, when he faced charges after a traffic accident, but Gov. William Donald Schaefer declined to do so -- apparently for budgetary reasons.

Zajonc said he thought his problems with Maryland were over until a traffic stop this May, when an outstanding Maryland warrant -- renewed in 1998 -- came up on the patrolman's computer. But Maryland now has a governor, Parris N. Glendening, with a policy of cutting no breaks for prison escapers.

It didn't help that Zajonc was found to have a small quantity of marijuana in his possession. In Arizona, that isn't treated as a big deal, with no jail time for a first offense. But, to Maryland authorities, it cast doubts on Zajonc's claims of rehabilitation.

`Don't even know that guy'

The returning fugitive said he had changed and no longer wanted to be known as James Zajonc, a young man with a bad attitude and no skills except stealing and running.

"It's like I don't even know that guy," he said. "When they get through that pound of flesh, I'm going to go back to being Paul Robinson."

Zajonc said he knows he did wrong by escaping, but he added that it was all he knew after a troubled youth during which he ran away from every juvenile facility to which he was sent.

M. Gordon Tayback, Zajonc's attorney in Maryland, said his first step will be to discuss pending escape charges with the Anne Arundel County state's attorney. Then he plans to take pleas for leniency to the Maryland Parole Commission and the governor.

"When [Zajonc] left the work detail in 1979, he was a much different person than he is today," Tayback said. "And it's not really logical to incarcerate him today when he's largely rehabilitated himself."

After helping Zajonc surrender, Larry Zito said he hopes things work out for the sake of his friend's family. He added that the man he delivered to the police yesterday is much changed from the youth he knew.

"It's like he was born again," Zito said.

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