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Hunt Pressed for Last of Escaped Killers : Florida: Even as plane tows banner with family plea for surrender, the reward for his capture reaches $30,000. Bounty hunters join search.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly three weeks after five convicted murderers tunneled their way out of a South Florida prison, the massive manhunt for the last of the killers at large has turned emotional.

Frustrated that an 80-member task force using infrared cameras, high-speed helicopters and bloodhounds has failed to collar Juan Jesus Fleitas, state police last week spent $874 to hire a Piper Cub to tow a banner with this Spanish-language plea: “Juany, we love you. Please turn yourself in--Pepe.”

For four hours Monday, the single-engine plane trailed its message over sunbathers on Miami Beach, over downtown Miami and Little Havana, over Hialeah and the nearby woods where Fleitas was reportedly spotted during a cockfight.

Pepe is Jose Fleitas, the fugitive’s uncle, who also made a videotape for police in which he urged his nephew to surrender. “Do it for Mami, who is watching everything that is happening on television,” Jose Fleitas says.

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“It’s very unsettling knowing this guy is out there, and we’re willing to try anything,” Lee Condon, a special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said of the unusual aerial appeal.

But was it effective?

“Well,” Condon said, “we don’t have him.”

Juan Fleitas, 30, is one of six convicted killers who on Jan. 2 broke out of a state prison in Belle Glade, on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee about 60 miles northwest of Miami. Using their hands, a plastic spoon and a broken shovel, the men worked in shifts to dig a 45-foot tunnel from the prison chapel to beyond a perimeter fence of razor wire.

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One of the men was captured immediately after popping up on the other side of the fence. But the other five, all Cuban-born and onetime Miami residents, fled into the fields of tall sugar cane surrounding the prison--and for more than a week eluded one of the largest, most expensive manhunts in Florida history.

The fugitives have been profiled on the TV program “America’s Most Wanted,” and Gov. Lawton Chiles authorized the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to offer a $10,000 reward for the capture of each convict.

On Jan. 10, 70 heavily armed police officers raided a squatters’ camp just west of Miami and, after a shootout, captured one of the escapees, Florencio Alvarez, 39, and killed another, 62-year-old Armando Junco.

A day later, a police officer spotted Hector Manuel Rivas, 32, walking along the street in Miami’s Little Havana. He was arrested without a struggle. On Jan. 12, police picked up Jesus Martinez, 47, in almost the same spot.

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Since Martinez and Rivas were captured without any help from the public, the $20,000 in reward money designated for their apprehension has been rolled over onto Fleitas’ head. He’s now worth $30,000, and several bounty hunters have joined the chase.

Fleitas is considered dangerous and possibly armed, police warn. He was serving a life sentence after being convicted of shooting a college student in the face with a machine gun during a 1985 home-invasion robbery.

Recent prison-yard pictures of Fleitas show a shirtless man with the physique of a bodybuilder.

Despite receiving a daily stream of calls from people reporting tips and possible sightings, police admit that Fleitas could be anywhere.

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“He’s being more patient than others. He appears to be lying low,” Condon said. “But we want to be able to close this chapter successfully, so agents will keep beating the bushes. You keep feeling you’re so close.”

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.


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