Sheriff A.J. Smith shows off the water bottle that helped lead to capture of Robert Rutherford. [ David Adlerstein | The Times ]
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Abandoned water bottle helped lead to inmate capture

When a Florida Department of Corrections officer spotted a man on a bicycle in Eastpoint Thursday morning, law enforcement officials thought he might be Robert Rutherford, the Franklin Correctional Institution inmate who escaped from a work camp detail in Apalachicola Monday morning.

When they looked over the contents of a backpack the man left behind before fleeing, they found the clue they needed to confirm they were hot on his trail.

At a noon news conference at the offices of Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, he said the man was spotted on Washington Street at about 8:30 a.m., and then rode off on a bicycle through a nearby trailer park to Old Ferry Dock Road.

“They lost him in a heavily wooded area,” said Smith.

In the backpack he left behind alongside the bicycle, the man had left a large water bottle with a telephone number smeared in what looked like pink lipstick on its side.

Reva Sapp, a criminal data analyst with the sheriff’s office, then compared the number to that of Rutherford’s sister Christina which was listed in the prison visitation log.

They matched, and the team of close to 50 deputies, policemen, state troopers, correctional officers and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers who had been tracking him for three days knew they had their man.

Smith said they then moved their resources from Apalachicola to Eastpoint, where they set up a perimeter and deployed K-9s in the area where Rutherford was last spotted. 

“They were having trouble picking up the scent,” he said. “There were a lot of people moving.

“We were searching abandoned buildings, and we felt really confident he was still here,” said the sheriff. “We kept the perimeter tight.”

At about 6:30 p.m. a man called the sheriff’s office with a tip that Rutherford was in a trailer on the property of Noah Goodson at 377 Barber Drive, which borders a heavily wooded area in Eastpoint.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had offered a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the escaped inmate’s arrest. “It was critical, it makes people talk,” said Smith, noting that the tipster lives on the streets in Eastpoint.

“They guys already been calling (about collecting the reward),” said Smith.

The sheriff said Rutherford did not offer resistance when Deputy John Nunez came in to apprehend him, particularly since Rutherford is listed as 5-feet 6-inches tall and 150 pounds. “(Deputy Nunez) is like a bulldozer so he wasn’t going anywhere,” said Smith.

“We’re not sure how he got to Eastpoint,” the sheriff said. “He actually said he swam the river to get to Eastpoint. 

“I don’t really think he swam the river,” he said. “Somebody helped him.”

Smith said the bicycle and backpack belonged to Jenny Nowling, who he said was not cooperative when questioned by police.

The sheriff said investigators are tracking where Rutherford fled to after he asked to use the bathroom at Battery Park around lunchtime Monday while working on a FDOC work crew at Ten Foot Hole, putting in fencing for the Nov. 3 through 5 Florida Seafood Festival.

Smith said the first sighting was at Chestnut Cemetery, before he fled into the northside of U.S. 98. “He was not familiar with the area, he had never been there before,” he said.

Rutherford broke into a vacant house, where he “ate their food, drank their whiskey and defecated in the toilet.

“He didn’t flush it and left a mess in there,” said Smith. “And he stole a bicycle from there.”

The sheriff said the evidence from the scene has been sent off to the lab to determine if there are fingerprints or DNA, and that this could lead to burglary charges to go along with the warrant for escape.

“He didn’t want to talk about the burglaries,” said Smith, noting that Rutherford asked to see a lawyer while being interviewed at the jail, where he remained as of Friday afternoon.

Smith said investigators are also looking into who may have assisted Rutherford during his more than three days on the lam.

“Somebody helped him but being able to prove it is a whole other thing,” he said.

The sheriff praised the work of the many law enforcement officials who assisted in the search.

“They did an awesome job,” Smith said. “I’m very happy with how it was handled; I’m just happy it didn’t go on any longer.”

The escaped inmate is believed to have been hiding in this shed when he was apprehended by sheriff’s deputies. ; David Adlerstein | The Times ]

The sheriff also thanked the community for its help in telephoning in leads and complying with requests to keep their porch lights on to make it easier to detect someone during the round-the-clock search of city streets.

“The public really responded well,” Smith said. “Anytime they saw something they called, and we were running down a lot of leads.”

The sheriff said that once Finance Director Ginger Coulter tallies up all the overtime costs, he plans to submit a bill to FDOC for reimbursement. 

He stressed that having an inmate escape from a work crew is an extremely rare occurrence anywhere in the state.

“{These inmates that come into these communities do a lot of work for free; it doesn’t cost the city or county any money,” Smith said. “They are beneficial but there’s a risk. 

The city or county has to decide ‘Is the risk worth what they’re getting out of it?’

“These folks go on these work crews, they do their job, they go back and they’re not escaping or committing any crime.

“They do a lot of great work,” he said. “They’re a value.”

A news release from the Florida Department of Corrections Tuesday said that the department “is committed to ensuring all inmates are supervised appropriately, and that security protocols at all work sites are followed to prevent escapes.”

Rutherford, 37, from Pasco County, has been incarcerated at FCI since Sept. 2011, after he received a 20-year sentence in Pasco County for armed burglary and stealing property worth as much as $100,000.

Prior to that he was imprisoned from September 2007 until May 2008, part of a conviction record listed on the Florida Department of Corrections website that indicates Rutherford has a lengthy history of offenses in Pasco County over the past decade, which have included multiple counts of armed burglary, grand theft, possessing burglary tools, criminal mischief, grand theft of a motor vehicle, trafficking stolen property, burglary of an occupied dwelling, and burglary of an unoccupied dwelling.

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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