SPRINGFIELD – Zakar Elbay apparently found religion. The 44-year-old state prison inmate was living at a transition center finishing a six-year sentence for possession of a stolen vehicle when he got a Christmas Day 2013 pass to work at a religious facility. He never returned.
Now he's among nearly two dozen Illinois inmates The Associated Press discovered as "escaped" after compiling and analyzing state data.
There's also Anthony Hebron, who was serving four years for drug possession when he skipped out of a transition center just a week before Elbay's disappearance, after getting a pass for dinner and a movie.
Donald Scroggins, who'd be 86, slipped away from a low-level Menard prison intake facility in southern Illinois on July 31, 1974, where he had been placed after he violated parole on 1960 burglary and weapons charges. And the granddaddy of Illinois fugitives is Harlan Graham, who hasn't been heard from since April 18, 1955 and would be 111 years old.
The AP review was spurred by the escape last summer of Jared Carter from a prison work crew outside the walls of Robinson Correctional Center, which raised questions about how many escape and how quickly those who do are caught. Carter was found four days later and was sentenced in March to 11 more years behind bars.
Officials with the Illinois Department of Corrections, shown the AP's list, said they never stop looking for the renegades – although some have been on the lam for decades.
"It could be today, tomorrow, or when you're 70 years old," said Mike Harrington, a Corrections apprehension specialist. "It's not going to go away."
It's difficult to gauge Illinois' success. National statistics on fugitives are not readily available. But in the Prairie State, 11 who were loose have been snared in the past two years, including two who had been gone since the mid-1990s, the data show, and Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer confirmed three died on the street.
While they don't break out Hollywood-style – they don't "go 'over the wall' ... or hide in an outgoing laundry truck," Shaer said – some avoid detection. On average, those missing have been gone 18.6 years.
"I just can't go to their home that they bought last year and expect them to be there...," Harrington said. "The ones that stay gone the longest don't have a lot of stuff where I can track them: They just renewed their driver's license, or they just applied for a credit card, or they got utilities in their name. It's not impossible to come off the grid."
Most who bolted didn't break out as much as walked away. They were in transition centers, which prepare inmates for post-prison life "with limited and carefully planned opportunities," Shaer said. According to Corrections figures, 17,638 inmates were released from ATCs in the past decade, with only a few ditching.
Graham, who Shaer said was in Cook County Jail when he skipped, faced bad-checks charges in 1952, including for a pair of slacks at a Chicago department store "by means of the confidence game," according to circuit clerk's records. The jail found no record of him.
Six, including Elbay and Hebron, are "considered armed and dangerous," a label slapped on anyone with a physical altercation in his past, even a dismissed battery charge, Shaer said. But most who took flight were imprisoned for non-violent, if serious, crimes: pushing drugs, burglary, selling a stolen vehicle. Even so, Scroggins was convicted of unlawful use of weapon, and Daniel Castillo, who would be 82 now and escaped in September 1981, was in for voluntary manslaughter.
Walter McCottrell, 66, was finishing a 10-year stint for rape, armed robbery and burglary when he took off in October 1976. A year later, he began a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison, California prison spokesman Luis Patino confirmed, for multiple counts of kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and more.
Harrington, whose caseload also includes those who absconded from parole – there are approximately 900, according to the data AP analyzed – tries to gain the trust of family and friends, convincing them that the fugitive is unable to move on with his life as long he remains on the street. Suspected patterns develop, including where they go and who they're with.
It's still possible to flee the country with a new identity, said Dennis Sew, vice president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, an organization of bounty hunters.
"But that's usually not the human behavior ...," Sew said. "Unless you don't care about anything in the whole world except for yourself, eventually you're going to contact somebody, and that's when you get caught. "
Contact John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor