April 14, 2013

Maine's longest-serving prisoner running no more

For 79-year-old Albert Paul – a convicted thief and murderer with a colorful history of breaking free – those days are now years behind him.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Albert Paul, 79, has spent most of his life in prison for a string of crimes and is currently serving a life sentence for a 1971 murder. The Department of Corrections has estimated that it has spent nearly $1.5 million since the early 1950s to keep the Maine man locked up.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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1972 booking photos from the Maine State Prison in Thomaston

Additional Photos Below

He dug a few feet down, into an unused sewage drainage pipe that had filled over time with loose dirt.

Each night, he arranged pillows in the shape of a body beneath a blanket on his narrow mattress, climbed under the bed frame and began to dig. He put the dirt in pillowcases and then emptied them in an unoccupied cell nearby when no one was looking.

In a little more than a month, Paul had tunneled 42 feet from his cell to the edge of the prison’s foundation, 8 feet from freedom.

But the foundation of the prison was built with massive granite blocks. He couldn’t go through them, even with his smuggled tools. He couldn’t dig around them either because they were connected. He thought about digging up from the spot where he stopped, but he feared that the tunnel might collapse and bury him alive. He had to give up.

The escape attempt mirrors a scene in the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” based on a novella by Stephen King. In the climactic scene, a wrongfully accused prisoner crawls through a tunnel he dug from his cell to the prison’s inner wall and then escapes by breaking a hole in the sewage pipe and crawling through it to freedom.

Asked whether Paul’s attempt might have been the real-life inspiration for the story, King, who lives in Bangor, chuckled and said he had never heard of Paul.

RELATIONSHIP DOESN’T END WELL

In 1979, Barbara Jeannie Hecker came into the prison shop in Maine and bought a doll cradle for her then 9-year-old daughter.

The girl wanted to write a letter to the person who made it – Albert Paul.

So she did. Hecker started writing, too. She and Paul formed a relationship, first through letters, then visits. Paul would sometimes send her money that he earned from prison work.

The visits ended years later when Paul was transferred to Pennsylvania.

Hecker died of lung cancer in January at age 72. Her daughter, Kathleen Fickett, is now 42 and lives in Lewiston. Fickett said she hadn’t thought about Paul in 30 years but still remembers the effect he had on her family.

She remembers driving from Maine to Illinois – another state where Paul was once an inmate – with her mother to visit him in prison there.

Her mother had developed complicated feelings for Paul during a rough patch with her husband. In many ways, Fickett said, Paul was the opposite of her father.

“He was an imposing figure,” she said. “I was intimidated.”

The relationship didn’t end well. Hecker was trying to rebuild her fractured marriage, and Paul was an impediment. He sent threatening letters after Hecker stopped visiting. Fickett remembers her mother being frightened of Paul, even though he was locked up, because he had escaped before.

Fickett was surprised to hear that Paul was still alive.

“He was so good with his hands. His woodwork was beautiful,” Fickett said, remembering the long-gone doll cradle. “It’s sad that he never tapped into something more positive in his life.”

ON THE LAM FOR TWO WEEKS

Paul was just shy of his 49th birthday and was doing time in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., when he breathed free air for the last time.

Assigned to a metal shop, he often moved around the prison. One day he noticed that when guards came around to count the inmates, he wasn’t always where he was supposed to be, but they counted him anyway. In another section of the prison where Paul made his regular rounds, boxes were stacked on a truck, filled with towels and other linens to be cleaned at a nearby building outside the prison wall.

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Additional Photos

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Albert Paul, photographed Jan. 18 at the Maine State Prison in Warren, will turn 80 in June. He’s been in and out of prison – mostly in – since he was 18 and likely will die there, having been sentenced to life for killing a South Portland woman in 1971.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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This newspaper clipping from Sept. 8, 1962, details the reapprehension of Maine State Prison inmate Albert Paul, who managed to escape several times – sometimes quite dramatically – during his lifetime of incarceration.

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Clippings from newspaper archives chronicle Paul’s journey to life in prison.



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