Vincent Pelliccia, the retired electrician from Newhall who was arrested earlier this month for escaping from a Virginia chain gang 41 years ago, was pardoned Tuesday and released from custody.
"You see, Mr. Pelliccia, justice does work," said Los Angeles Municipal Judge Glenette Blackwell, ordering Pelliccia freed after Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles issued the pardon.
The news stunned Pelliccia, 62, who authorities say has lived an exemplary life since settling in California three decades ago.
"I never anticipated this in a million years," Pelliccia said after he walked out of the courtroom into the arms of weeping relatives. "Freedom is the greatest thing in the world. I'm deeply thankful to the governor of Virginia."
Baliles granted a conditional pardon to Pelliccia because of his crime-free record since being released from prison in 1952 in Rhode Island, where he served six years for burglary in a separate case, according to the governor's press secretary, Jennifer Mullins.
"After reviewing his record and considering his 30 years of lawful employment as an electrician, (the governor) decided that further prosecution would serve no useful purpose," Mullins said.
Baliles, in a prepared statement, said, "This is a very unusual case, and I believe the decision is appropriate because of the evidence."
The pardon is conditioned on Pelliccia's good behavior over the next 9 1/2 years, the time remaining on his 10-year Virginia sentence. It may be revoked anytime in that period if he violates the law.
Pelliccia was convicted at age 19 of "store-breaking" in Norfolk, Va., after he was accused of burglarizing three stores. Following his brush with the law in Rhode Island, he moved to Southern California in 1959, raised five children and worked 28 years as a movie studio electrician.
Friends and relatives rallied to his defense after his recent arrest. At the Burbank Studios, where he had worked until his retirement three months ago, former co-workers printed bumper stickers and T-shirts that said "Free Vinnie--no more chains." They also started a defense fund and circulated petitions, gathering several thousand signatures, urging his pardon.
Pelliccia said Tuesday that he did not worry on a daily basis that authorities would come after him for the 1946 escape, but he thought that some day "the boom would be lowered."
Nonetheless, he said, he was shocked when Los Angeles police knocked on the door of his Newhall home Aug. 4 and asked him if he was Vincent Pelliccia. He had come to the attention of police after he gave a ride home from a restaurant to a casual acquaintance, who was under surveillance as part of an undisclosed investigation. A police computer check on Pelliccia revealed the outstanding warrant.
Pelliccia, who was held in Los Angeles County Jail, said he thought he would be extradited to Virginia and serve at least some of the time remaining of his sentence.
His prospects brightened Monday, however, when Virginia authorities dropped the 1946 charge for escape, saying that prosecution would be "a waste of time" because no witnesses could be found.
When Pelliccia appeared in Los Angeles Municipal Court on Tuesday, he expected only to be released from jail on bail to await the outcome of Virginia's attempts to extradite him.
Baliles wasn't expected to act on the extradition for several days. But Mullins said that the governor had been pondering a pardon for several days and that he received a number of letters concerning Pelliccia.
The pardon is being express-mailed to Pelliccia's attorney, Mark A. Gottesman, who said his client will sign it today, making it official.
"It was the support of the people in California that influenced the (Virginia) executives in their decision making," an ecstatic Gottesman said.
Pelliccia said he has "never been an emotional man" but he clutched letters from well-wishers as he left the court.
"The first thing I want to do is go back home and tend my garden," he said, although his immediate plans called for a dinner--probably Italian food--with his family. Relatives say he is a gourmet cook who grows his own herbs.
Pelliccia has said little about the four months he spent on the chain gang in South Hill, Va., 41 years ago before he cut his shackles and fled one afternoon. "If you saw 'Cool Hand Luke'--that's what it's like," he said.
Pelliccia's lawyers confirmed Tuesday that his flight from the chain gang in 1946 was his second escape. He fled from the Norfolk County Jail with two other men on Aug. 5, 1945, just after his conviction and before he was assigned to the road camp. He was recaptured in Michigan and returned to Virginia to serve his sentence.
"He cut through the bars next to a shower and then took some bricks out," attorney Frank Polito said.
Rhode Island records indicate that he was convicted there on March 11, 1947, of three counts of burglary and sentenced to six years in prison. He was paroled on Dec. 5, 1952.
Virginia authorities attempted to extradite Pelliccia at that time to face the remainder of his sentence, but the governor of Rhode Island blocked the extradition.
Pelliccia said that he did nothing to hide from authorities during his years of freedom. He was assured by his attorney in 1952, he said, that Virginia's outstanding warrant for his arrest on the escape had been "straightened out."
"I was working, paying taxes," he said. "It never dawned on me this would really happen."
Pelliccia said he was not mad at authorities for reviving the old incident, saying, "The end result wipes out any anger."
Pelliccia said he also did not regret having kept his past secret from his children, friends and co-workers. "If you go through life blaming someone for your yesterdays, you never get to tomorrow," he said.
Family members describe Pelliccia as a mechanical whiz who dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Family legend had it that, in the early 1950s, he built from scratch a television, hand-carving the cabinet and wiring the inside, according to his daughter, Sally Pelliccia, 31, who lives in the Boston area.
He gave the television set to his parents, poor Italian immigrants living in a Providence, R.I., slum, she said. Sally Pelliccia said she did not realize until last week, when she first heard the story of her father's past, that he had built the television set while in a Rhode Island prison.