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California prison escapee recaptured after 36 years on the lam

August 23, 2011 | 12:26 pm

William Walter Asher III For 36 years, fugitive William Walter Asher III lived life looking over his shoulder.

He made a brazen escape from a California prison camp, where he was serving a life sentence.

He assumed alias after alias. He raised a family in Alaska before returning to the Golden State as a trucker.

But his years on the run came to an end last week, when agents using phone records from his mother's death bed finally caught up with him.

Billy Asher's life of crime began in 1966 when he and three accomplices robbed a San Francisco bar, said  FBI Special Agent Steve Dupre.

During the robbery. a bartender was shot and beaten to death.

Asher, 20 at the time fled to Chicago but was captured a year later by the FBI. He was returned to California, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to seven years to life in prison for his role in the killing.

With the help of a woman on the outside, Asher slipped out of Growlersburg Conservation Camp No. 33 in El Dorado County in 1975 and fled to Canada and Alaska.

Investigators later learned he assumed the alias David Donald Mcfee, worked as a long-haul trucker, married and raised a family. He eventually separated from his wife and disappeared again, leaving behind his frontier family.

One of his daughters even contacted the FBI seeking information about his whereabouts.

The trail went cold for more than three decades, until his mother's death in 2005. Before Mable Welch died, she had asked family members to help her use a “secret” phone number to call “Billy,” authorities said.

Equipped with this information, FBI agents collected cellphone records for Welch's friends, who were believed to have helped her in contacting her fugitive son.

The review revealed that two days before Welch died, two calls were made to a home in Salida, Calif.

When investigators got the homeowner's driver's license, his photo looked familiar. "Garry Donald Webb" was an older, thinner Asher. His right thumbprint from his driver's license matched that from Asher’s arrest fingerprint card.

FBI agents and police officers set up surveillance on Asher's home -- a trucking business where the man known as Webb worked. When he walked out of his home at 8:15 a.m. last Friday, investigators pounced.

It didn't take long for Asher to admit his true identity.

But not everyone knew of Asher's past. Inside the home was a girlfriend he lived with for 27 years. She was shocked to learn of Asher's criminal history and prison escape, agents said.

Asher was booked into the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, where he was processed back into state prison.


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-- Richard Winton

Photo: William Walter Asher III. Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation