Police Bungling Kept Him Free 19 Years, Fugitive Says

Times Staff Writer

William Lee Caniford, the 67-year-old escapee captured this week in San Diego, says police in three states picked him up during his 19 years on the lam from a Virginia prison, but that authorities botched efforts to return him to the prison he sawed his way out of in 1966.

In a telephone interview Friday from his cell in the San Diego County Jail, Caniford said he did not need to rely on elaborate subterfuge to elude capture and extradition to Mecklenburg County, Va., where he escaped from the Baskerville Prison Farm in June, 1966.

Instead, he said he simply used a few false names, laid low, stayed straight, kept moving--and depended on the inertia of police bureaucracy.

“Three times they could have had me and three times they turned me down,” said Caniford, who is awaiting extradition on an escape charge to Virginia, where he had been jailed for felonious use of credit cards. “So I don’t know why they want me now.”


Most recently, jailers in New Orleans freed Caniford in February, 1985, after holding him more than a month, apparently with the intention of returning him to Virginia.

But according to Virginia prison officials, their counterparts in New Orleans somehow let Caniford go free. A lengthy correspondence between the two states ended with New Orleans police informing the Virginia Department of Corrections “that Caniford had been released in error,” department spokesman Duncan Brogan said.

New Orleans police have a record of Caniford being arrested in January, 1985, but no further records concerning him, according to John Marie, a police spokesman.

After he was let go in New Orleans, Caniford, who for years had used aliases, relaxed.


“I never cared much anyway,” he said. “For sure after New Orleans I didn’t have a worry in the world. I knew that was the end of it.”

About 10 years earlier, Caniford said, he briefly was jailed in Phoenix and Brunswick, Md. Though he is uncertain of the dates, Caniford said he was arrested in Phoenix in November, 1977, for shoplifting. He spent three days in jail and was released the day before Thanksgiving--because, he said, Virginia refused to send for him. Neither Arizona nor Virginia authorities have records of Caniford being arrested in Phoenix, a fact the sometime car transporter and chef attributed to his use of aliases.

Caniford said he spent that Thanksgiving in his hometown of Brunswick--another stop that Virginia authorities said they knew nothing about.

But Brunswick Police Chief William F. Miller, who said he knows Caniford’s brother, Bob, “very well,” said he assumed Virginia officials would have scooped up Caniford if they had cared to.


“If we had him here and Virginia wanted him, they could have picked him up,” Miller said Friday. “If we didn’t keep him, they didn’t want him.”

Caniford stayed in Brunswick about two years, family friends said. “I even used to go to Virginia every weekend to drink,” he said.

“He was here, I can vouch for that, and he never told me, but it was general knowledge in the town that Virginia didn’t want him back,” Virginia Lowry said by telephone from Brunswick. Caniford was well-known and “very well-liked,” around town, Lowry said--and “one of the most well-dressed men in Brunswick.”

Eventually, Caniford decided he wanted a change. He headed to California.


“I came to San Diego and lived here 10 years and I never violated the law,” Caniford said. “I never had any trouble. . . . I knew I could stay here without having any trouble.”

His anonymity had held up well over the years, from Arizona to Florida, he figured. “Nobody ever looked into my background in those jobs and cooks are always needed,” Caniford said.

So in California, he said, he made no attempt to hide his identity because he was sure Virginia authorities had given up looking for him.

But 14 months ago, the Virginia Department of Corrections formed a unit to track down bail jumpers and escapees, director Edward Murray said.


“That’s how he got caught,” Murray said Friday. “His name popped up.”

Virginia authorities alerted San Diego police to Caniford’s presence in the city and his status as a fugitive. It was just a matter of cross-referencing to find Caniford’s whereabouts, police said.

After almost 20 years, San Diego police arrested Caniford Monday, when he showed up at the Federal Building downtown to pick up his Social Security check.

On June 9, 1966, about 2:30 p.m., Caniford sawed through the bars of the meal preparation room at the Baskerville Prison Farm and left the compound, prison director John D. Netherland said.


After waiving extradition earlier this week, Caniford will be returned to Mecklenburg County within a week, officials said.

Caniford, who suffers from diabetes and must take insulin, said he feels “terrible mentally and physically.”

Regrets? You bet. “I think they violated the hell out of my rights,” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade the last 20 years.”