Fugitive, wife arrested after 27 years in North Georgia

ETON — Nearly three decades back, Eric Coleman and his wife, Debbie, found a peaceful spot to settle down near this mountainous North Georgia hamlet a few miles south of the Tennessee border.

They worked odd jobs for cash, hitched rides to work and ate catfish and turtles Eric caught. They made friends with their hard-luck, come-and-go neighbors in a tumble-down trailer park they called home. They raised a daughter, now 25. They had a pet cockatiel and a Chihuahua named Sugar.

But last week, Eric and Debbie — now grandparents in their 50s — collided with their past. Local police and FBI agents swarmed their mobile home off Hooker Road in Murray County, taking the couple into custody during an early morning raid.

Eric, police said, was really Richard Boucher, 56, a felon who slugged a guard with a clothes iron and busted out of a Virginia prison 27 years ago while his wife, Debbie — now 53— waited with a getaway car.

"He lived a very modest, meager life in North Georgia that kept him off the radar," said Atlanta-based FBI special agent Stephen Emmett. "It served him well for nearly 30 years."

Neighbors described the man they knew as "Eric" as a "good guy" and a handyman who constantly struggled to make ends meet. If you needed a pipe fixed, you'd call Eric, neighbors said. A broken window — Eric was just a phone call or a door knock away.

"If I needed something, he'd be over here in just a few minutes to help out," said Gene Myers, 41, who lives near Boucher's mobile home. "He never caused any trouble with anybody."

Boucher and his wife had lived for the past five years or so in the small, tucked-away trailer park, where residents can rent by the week or month — $90 a week, $360 a month.

About 350 people live in the Eton area. The neighborhood is in a remote area off U.S. 441, just north of Chatsworth and about 14 miles northeast of the carpet-manufacturing center of Dalton.

Carpet mills line the highway near Chatsworth before it breaks into a pristine valley with mountains rising on the east. Hooker Road, a winding two-lane blacktop, is lined with modest, well-kept homes, many bordered by neat, freshly planted vegetable gardens.

"About the only trouble we have around here is barking dogs," said 65-year-old Marie Noland, who tended her tomatoes, corn and squash on a recent sunny afternoon.

Neighbors knew little of the couple's past, but they said it was apparent they were living hand-to-mouth in a place where nobody took next week's pay for granted.

"They seemed to be having a hard time," neighbor Adam McHan said. "If we had extra food, we'd carry it over there. They were always very thankful. They'd say, 'I don't know how we would've eaten today without this.' "

McHan, 24, remembered Eric playing peacemaker, once breaking up an escalating quarrel between two other trailer park residents.

Mostly, McHan said, Eric and Debbie kept to themselves.

"He laid on the down-low," McHan said.

Eric, however, seemed to be a different man than the felon Richard Boucher who escaped from a Chesapeake, Va., prison in October 1982, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for the armed robbery of a group of sailors. Records from the Virginia Department of Corrections show that at the time of his escape, Boucher bore scars from a knife wound on his stomach, a bullet wound to his right thigh and was known to use at least three aliases — Richard Brizanski, Donald Vickhouse and Richard Mitchell.

Back then, he was a dashing, mustachioed 30-something who stood 5-feet 11 inches and tipped the scales at 165 pounds. When he was busted last week, he was a portly, bearded man who looked like Grizzly Adams on a bad hair day. His fingers were so gnarled he had trouble filleting fish, Myers said, and he occasionally got shots to relieve the pain in his knees.

After his arrest this week, Boucher told investigators how he had slipped from sight after his Virginia escape in 1982. He and his wife drove to North Carolina where they sold the getaway car and walked into the woods of the Appalachian foothills, camping, hitchhiking and living off the land until they emerged in Murray County to begin their new life.

They lived in a tent for a time, then a motel until they could then rent a mobile home.

A few years later they had a daughter — now a married mother of two children — who apparently knew her parents only by their assumed names, according to neighbors and investigators.

Investigators say Boucher and his wife kept out of trouble as the years passed. They also stayed clear of anything that required a Social Security number or other information that could reveal their true identities.

"He told us he had to take the jobs nobody else wanted," said Capt. Rick Swiney of the Whitfiled County Sheriff's Department. "Neither he nor his wife ever applied for a driver's license."

Myers said Boucher told him he worked for a wealthy man — Myers did not know his name — who had a nearby farm. He often brought home $60 a day, all in cash, Myers said, but sometimes only worked a few days a week.

"The man he worked for would give him stuff that Eric cleaned out of buildings the man owned," Myers said as he puffed on a Marlboro and three scraggly kittens played at his feet.

"His wife and daughter would sell that stuff at flea markets to make money. He'd catch fish and mud turtles from the man's ponds to eat."

Boucher's luck ran out last week when Whitfield County investigators got a tip about his whereabouts. Police would not say who provided the information, but neighbors at the trailer park accused each other of ratting on Eric.

Swiney said when lawmen arrived, the fugitive put up no resistance, but at first continued to insist he was Eric Coleman, even after he was handcuffed by police.

"Then, one of the officers said: 'You're Richard Boucher.' And he just nodded and said, 'Yes,' " Swiney said. "Once they called his real name, he knew it was over."

Picked up on a fugitive warrant, Boucher has waived extradition, Swiney said, and will soon be taken back to Virginia. His wife was charged by Murray County police with harboring a fugitive. Police found a rifle at Boucher's mobile home, and he has been charged by Murray County with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The investigator said the fugitive seemed somewhat relieved that his years on the run were over.

"I think he was tired of looking over his shoulder," Swiney said.

"He said if he was asleep late at night and an acorn hit the trailer, he would jump up and look outside to see if it was law enforcement."

Swiney said Boucher told investigators he often thought of turning himself in as the years passed, especially on his birthday.

"But he said he could never quite bring himself to do it," Swiney said.