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After 43 years, Michigan calls off search for escapee

8:04 AM, Jan 3, 2013   |    comments
Jerry E. Bergevin was sentenced on July 20, 1962, on 26 counts of Breaking and Entering a Building with Intent. He escaped from a Michigan prison in 1969. No one knows what happened to him, and earlier this year, the state granted him an administrative discharge.(Photo: Michigan Department of Corrections)
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DETROIT -- He was once among Michigan's most-wanted criminals.

Now, they've stopped looking for him.

Jerry Bergevin, who would be 80 if he is alive, escaped from a Michigan prison camp in April 1969 while serving time for burglary.

Now, nearly 44 years later and with no idea whether Bergevin is dead or alive, the Michigan Department of Corrections has officially called off the search, granting him an administrative discharge because of his age and the length of time that has passed since anyone last heard from him. If he is alive, he is a free man.

For Bergevin's granddaughter, the news was bittersweet. She has spent years researching her grandfather's background and trying to fit together mysterious pieces of her family's past - and is no closer to closure.

"He's home free, I guess," said Angela Michels, 36, of Linwood. She said she believes her grandfather probably died years ago.

Bergevin's descendants are sure of some details: He was born Feb. 10, 1932, and had a twin brother and a half brother. He was raised by his grandmother, served in the Army in the early 1950s, and, according to Michels, once shot a fellow solider by accident while the two were on leave. He met a woman who would become his wife at a restaurant and had three daughters with her, settling in Bay City.

"I remember he bought me a tricycle," said daughter Cindy Schuhmacher, 55, of Bay City. "I thought he was tall, good-looking and someone to be proud of."

To law enforcement, Bergevin was a cocky troublemaker. Michels said a newspaper article described how, when a police officer once pulled him over and reached in his car to turn off the ignition, Bergevin accelerated through an intersection, the officer dangling from his vehicle.

Bergevin was also a pro at cracking safes, Michels said.

"My grandma and grandpa were pretty much the Bonnie and Clyde in the 1950s," she said. "They were pretty poor. They had three daughters, and stole a lot from farmers markets to feed their three kids."

Thick prison file

Bergevin's antics eventually landed him in prison.

Records in his thick prison file show his brushes with the law began in the 1940s. In 1962, he was arrested for breaking into a Flint drugstore, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10-15 years behind bars on multiple counts for that burglary and others.

Bergevin later appealed on technicality, had a trial and got a reduced sentence. Records are unclear, but the new sentence appears to have cost him at least some of the credit he had already earned for time served. It also pushed back his date with the parole board by about two years.

Bergevin wrote letters begging to be transferred from the state prison in Jackson to Camp Waterloo so he could attend a dental technician training program there. Wary prison officials expressed concerns about his misconducts in prison, but in April 1969, agreed to the transfer.

The camp housed low-level offenders.

"In '69, it probably had a single fence around it with barbed wire on top. It's possible in '69 it had no fence," said John Cordell, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The 37-year-old Bergevin never started the dental class.

"One day, they did a formal count and discovered he was missing," said Lt. Charles Levens, who runs the Outstate Region of the Department of Correction's Absconder Recovery Unit.

With modern facilities equipped with cameras, sensors and other security equipment, escapes are rare today. State records show five people escaped from MDOC custody in 2006, four in 2007, two in 2008, three in 2009 and two in 2010. Figures for 2011 and 2012 were not available.

There are 24 outstanding MDOC escapees in Michigan, Levens said. The oldest case dates to 1957, and the most recent is from 1988. Each person's file is reviewed at least once a year, he said.

When searching for escapees or absconders, officials contact family members or former employers, check to see whether they have received benefits from the state or federal government, look at other states' arrest records and browse for clues online.

Records show officials got a tip in 2009 that Bergevin was living under an alias at a house in Detroit. An investigator who visited the house in 2010 noted that it had burned two weeks earlier - and, according to neighbors, had been abandoned for several years before that.

Investigators also checked various government records, including death records, and interviewed members of Bergevin's family.

"There was nothing. He dropped off the face of the Earth," Levens said.

$25 reward

Levens said he believes Bergevin is the only person in at least the last year to get an administrative discharge, which an escapee can be considered for once he or she turns 80 and has not been heard from in at least five years.

"At that point, it becomes a resource management issue," Cordell said. "Is there a reason to put effort into somebody we haven't found for a long period of time and who may be deceased?"

The state printed fliers in 1969 offering a $25 reward for information leading to Bergevin's arrest.

Rumors swirled about what really happened. Michels said relatives told her years ago that Bergevin died in a motorcycle accident on his way to California. Another story put him among a group of migrant workers who sought work in the 1970s on a California farm and were killed by the farmer.

A short, undated, unsigned, handwritten note in Bergevin's file said he was last known to be working under the name Mark Thomas at a hospital in New Orleans.

"It kind of aggravated me," Michels said. "It's like there's part of the file missing that we don't know about."

Hunt for the truth

Michels' quest to find the truth began in 2004 after the Bay City (Mich.) Times printed, as part of a historical feature, the story about Bergevin's encounter with the police officer who pulled him over.

She visited libraries and pored over old newspaper clippings. At a courthouse in Ohio, she found a 1976 will from Bergevin's mother that had all three of her sons as beneficiaries. Bergevin's father's obituary from the late 1970s listed him as a living relative.

Michels said she got a cool response when she asked members of her grandfather's extended family about him. Others who might have known what really happened died before she could reach out to them.

Schuhmacher, who is Michels' mother, thinks her father tried to contact her and her sisters shortly after he escaped, including once when she was walking through the parking lot at school.

"Some kid said, 'Are you Cindy Bergevin? There's a guy in a car that wants to see you.' I was 11 or 12. I just kept walking," she said, realizing later that it might have been her dad. One of her sisters had a similar experience.

Michels' heart raced last year when "Captured!" appeared next to her grandfather's name on a list of the MDOC's most-wanted escapees and parole absconders. But the graphic just reflected the end of Bergevin's status as a wanted man, Cordell said.

Michels said she is sad, especially for her mother's sake, that the mystery remains unsolved. But she also knows the discharge gave her grandfather something he desperately sought.

"He finally is free, and that's what he wanted to be ever since the day he went to prison," she said.

Ann Zaniewski, Detroit Free Press

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