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If Jefferson jail fans want history, Panhandle has plenty of crime lore

April 20, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - I know I've seen, though I can't remember where, one of those white roadside historical markers proclaiming something like: "Eight miles from this point, General Lee crossed to Potomac..."

It seems as if they had a spare marker, but nothing of significance on-spot to mark.

Citizens who wish to save the brick and concrete rectangle that is the old Jefferson County Jail use a similar tack when they try to enlist downstate mine-war participants imprisoned here as grist for the jail's historic significance.

That's a stretch. The mine wars aren't part of Jefferson County's history - but it makes me wonder if any of the jail defenders have ever heard of the Franklin Brothers, a pair who - if you're looking for historical crime lore - fit the bill rather nicely. And the Jefferson County Jail played a central part in their story.

Next summer will mark the 25th anniversary of the day Charles "Bruce" and Warren "Dougie" Franklin, both in their early 20s, made their first mark in the Tri-State consciousness by beating a Hagerstown man to death for his wallet near his Antietam Street home.

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A year later they were sentenced to life in prison, pleading guilty to avoid possible execution. While in the Washington County Detention Center, Charles had already helped a man escape and both he and his younger brother had earned reputations as escape threats.

Nine months later the threat materialized when the Franklins hack-sawed through the window bars and then a chain link fence to escape from MCI - a feat that was virtually unheard of at the state prisons.

The brothers eventually broke into a home near Berkeley Springs, stole guns and money, shot a man, locked four other members of the family in the trunk of their Olds and hauled off to south Berkeley County.

They abandoned the car (with the family still in the trunk) and abducted another couple that was leaving the Top Brass Club near the Virginia line. They headed south on Interstate 81 and - tipped off by a string of notes their female prisoner scribbled on toilet paper in gas station rest rooms - were caught by police close to North Carolina after a rather dramatic chase/shootout.

Two months later they were sentenced for attempted murder in Virginia, and sent back to Berkeley Springs.

The Morgan County Sheriff, however, wanted no part of them in his jail, partly because he had no means of round-the-clock surveillance. During a court hearing, an incredulous defense attorney asked "You mean to tell me that the sheriff locks up the jail at five o'clock and doesn't get back until the next morning?" To which the deputy replied "That's what it amounts to."

(It was true. Once in the holiday season, a couple of prisoners in the Berkeley Springs jail broke out late one night, crossed the street and broke into a restaurant. All they stole was a keg of beer, which they lugged back to the jail. They locked themselves back up and, cells being notably short of beer taps, busted the keg open with a foreign object and proceeded to have an all-night party).

The Berkeley County sheriff didn't want the Franklins either, but Jefferson County Sheriff Don Giardina figured his jail to be pretty much escape proof - which was red meat to the Franklin Brothers' ears.

At first they seemed docile enough, reading magazines and playing the harmonica. For the Franklins the harmonica helped pass the long hours, but it also had the bonus effect of covering up the sounds of a hacksaw blade slicing its way through an iron bar.

For the remainder of the summer, the entire Panhandle was spooked. "Panic," the papers called it. People bought guns and big dogs. Between 500 and 1,000 tips were registered with police, including one from a Berkeley County man who said the Franklins tried to run him down in a van. They were holding a woman hostage in the back and a man hostage in the front, he said. Threatened with a lie detector, he allowed as to how the men he saw may not have been the brothers, but rather some other gun wielding hostage-takers.

The Franklins' legend grew faster than field corn. They were mountain boys, and they looked the part - rawboned, scraggly facial hair, high cheekbones and cunning eyes. (Although I always thought Dougie bore a slight resemblance to Sir Paul McCartney, in a mountain-man kind of way). They would kill game and eat it raw, rather than risk a fire. They could live off of roots and shrubs, etc.

And they were brash. One showed up for a court appearance wearing a shirt that said "Panhandle Bandit: I'm in town to fool around."

After two months on the lam, they were caught just as police had predicted, when a couple of hunters stumbled upon their deep-woods hideout. They were living in an underground bunker rigged with propane and car batteries for energy, bunk beds, a makeshift dresser and a well-stocked larder. They'd adopted two pet kittens.

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