Fugitive's prosthetic leg gives him away

A footnote to one of Florida's most infamous death-row cases was written Monday night, when Walter Norman Rhodes — given away by his prosthetic left leg — was arrested not far from his double-wide mobile home in rural Okanogan County.

Rhodes, 53, had been the Florida Highway Patrol's most-wanted fugitive since he skipped parole in 1994. In 1976, he was involved in the fatal shootings of a Florida state trooper and a Canadian police constable.

The case made Rhodes and his two codefendants, Jesse Tafero and Sonia Jacobs, notorious in Florida. Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison in exchange for incriminating Tafero and Jacobs, who were husband and wife. Both were sentenced to death.

Years later, authorities developed evidence suggesting Rhodes was the gunman and Tafero and Jacobs were not the killers. By then, it was too late for Tafero, who had been executed.

From 1999 until their arrests, Rhodes and his wife, Sara, 62, had lived under assumed identities — Michael and Sara Estes — in Oroville, in north-central Washington. After stops in New Mexico, where they worked odd jobs, and Twisp, Okanogan County, where they lived in a new-age commune run by a man called "Rev. Harry," they finally found a home, authorities said.

The Rhodeses had been operating a legitimate Web publishing and design company called Celestial Cooperatives, and were living comfortably.

"He was trying to stay under the radar. He didn't want any problems," said Okanogan County Sheriff's Detective Kreg Sloan.

The case began Feb. 20, 1976, when Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Philip Black walked toward a car parked at a Broward County rest stop. Black was with Ontario Provincial Police Constable Donald Irwin, who was visiting from Canada.

Rhodes and Tafero were sleeping in the front seats. Jacobs and two children were in the back. Black saw a gun on the floor of the car and woke everybody up. Moments later, a gunfight broke out, and Black and Irwin were dead.

Rhodes, Tafero and Jacobs fled in the police car, then hijacked another car. They were apprehended at a police roadblock after another shootout. Rhodes was shot in the left leg, which later was amputated. All three were tried for murder. Rhodes cut a deal with prosecutors, implicating the other two. After years of appeals, Tafero was executed in 1990.

Jacobs was freed in 1992 after a childhood friend and documentary filmmaker turned up evidence showing that she could not have killed the officers.

Rhodes served 18 years and was released in 1994. He was on parole when he disappeared.

The case had gone cold when, two weeks ago, Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Paul Henry, an identity-theft specialist, saw Walter Rhodes' name on the Florida Highway Patrol Web site and, on a whim, ran it through some public-records databases.

It popped up next to a post-office box in Twisp.

Henry started connecting the dots. The post-office box connected to Sara Estes' name. Marriage records connected her to a Michael Estes. A look at Michael Estes' Washington driver's license showed the same physical description as Walter Rhodes.

Henry asked for a driver's license photo, and although there was an 18-year difference between that photograph and the Florida Department of Corrections photo, authorities were sure they had a match.

"I requested the (driver's license) application," Henry said, "and Washington requires the applicant to list impairments to driving. There it was, 'artificial left leg.' "

About 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, Okanogan County Sheriff's deputies, working on Henry's tip, followed Rhodes as he drove from his house, pulled him over and arrested him for investigation of identity theft, perjury and possession of a firearm.

His wife was arrested for harboring a fugitive.

Authorities say Rhodes won't be extradited to Florida until his alleged crimes in Washington are addressed.

"To all his neighbors, he'd be the guy next door," Henry said. "But you never know who people are. You never really know."

After Jacobs was freed, she became a fixture on the anti-death-penalty lecture circuit and started a movement called "Survival Yoga," based on her experiences in solitary confinement. She is now traveling quietly through Europe.

"If this guy (Rhodes) was living a decent life, it seems almost a shame," she said yesterday in a phone interview.

Jacobs said she has long gotten over whatever anger she may once have felt for Rhodes. And she wondered what good it does for the Florida police to haul Rhodes back there for simply violating his parole.

She said she has chalked up Rhodes' false testimony to the desperation he must have felt in the face of capital-murder charges. She said her case should be a lesson against offering plea deals in death-penalty cases.

"But at this point in my life, it's none of my business, in a way," she said. "I've moved on from there. I can only say that, happily, this has nothing to do with me anymore."

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com; Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com