Questions linger from man's escape

September 30, 1997


Staff Writer

When Roy Saunders learned that his nephew had failed to return from a weekend furlough in August, he called officials at the Patuxent Institution to chastise them for giving the convicted murderer unsupervised leave.

Saunders, of Leitersburg, said a prison psychiatrist told him Charles Elmer Carpenter posed no threat. He said he tried in vain to convince him that Carpenter was the same dangerous man he was in 1982, when, at age 17, he shot and killed his 77-year-old grandmother in Clear Spring.

"He told me that he was no threat to nobody . I guess now maybe that man knows that that boy was a threat," said Saunders, whose mother was Carpenter's shooting victim.


Now Saunders and critics of the prison system want to know how a convicted first-degree murderer was able to simply walk away from an unsupervised weekend pass, as Carpenter did on Aug. 10.

Carpenter was killed Sept. 19 during a shootout with a sheriff's deputy near a rural Montana mining town.

Officials with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services say that Patuxent officials followed all procedures with Carpenter.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the department, said Carpenter was among a group of inmates sentenced before 1989 who have work-release and leave privileges that are not available to prisoners incarcerated after that time.

Carpenter was given those privileges after undergoing extensive counseling and spending years complying with the program, Sipes said.

When he was finally given furloughs in 1995, Sipes said officials from the Jessup, Md., prison conducted a comprehensive background check of the woman he was scheduled to visit.

But that woman, Vada Luedtke, tells a different story.

Luedtke, Carpenter's half-sister, said she originally was supposed to meet a prison official at her Baltimore home before the visits began. But she said she missed that appointment and it was never rescheduled.

Weekend visits

During the months that Carpenter visited her on weekend passes, she said Patuxent officials never contacted her to follow up.

"There's nobody that's ever called and nobody's ever been at my house," she said.

Sipes denied that was the case.

"We've met with her and we've been in contact with her on a regular basis," he said.

This much is clear: Carpenter was able to visit Luedtke and was not discovered missing until he failed to report back to the halfway house in which he was serving his life sentence.

Officials had no way of telling if Carpenter spent his time at the designated address. He was required only to report by phone when he arrived.

Luedtke said Carpenter did visit her, at first.

"Then he decided, I guess, that it was his life and he was going to do what he wanted," she said.

Luedtke said Carpenter began visiting less and less often. When he did show up, he filled her in on his activities, which ranged from fishing to barhopping, Luedtke said.

"He started slowing down probably two months before he disappeared and probably three weeks before, he didn't come around," she said. "He was running his own life, growing up at the age of 32."

Luedtke said she never contacted prison officials when Carpenter failed to show up for a scheduled visit.

"It's not my responsibility to take care of an adult. That's their responsibility," she said.

Political issue

The Carpenter saga has already begun to take on political undertones with a gubernatorial election a year away.

The Maryland Republican Party has blasted Gov. Parris N. Glendening for the incident and issued an apology to Montana on behalf of the state.

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said Glendening has worked hard to ensure violent criminals serve long prison terms.

"No one is tougher on violent crime or violent criminals that Parris Glendening," Feldmann said.

Sipes, the public safety spokesman, said any notion that Glendening is responsible for the gunfight in Montana is absurd.

Sipes said 99 percent of the state's prisoners are ineligible for the kinds of far-reaching privileges Carpenter enjoyed. Glendening has little control over the other 1 percent because of court orders that state officials believe prevent them from retroactively placing new restrictions on them, Sipes said.

Sipes acknowledged that the initial reaction of Patuxent officials did not help. Dr. Henry J. Richards, the prison's associate director, noted shortly after he disappeared that Carpenter had no criminal record other than the murder.

"This is not somebody I would worry about doing something to anybody," he said at the time.

Was that a mistake?

"Obviously," said Sipes, who said Richards does not normally deal with the news media.

Sipes said the department's policy is to express concern whenever any prisoner escapes.

Some Glendening critics who have lambasted him for being too inflexible on parole issues said it is the height of irony to accuse him of leniency.

Frank Dunbaugh, a board member of the Maryland Justice Policy Institute, said Maryland may be the only state to "abolish parole by press release."

Dunbaugh said Glendening has made it clear - unwisely in his view - that he will not even consider parole for lifers.

"And so they don't. They don't send them to him," he said.

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