Pardon Board Recommends Six-Month Sentence For Escapee
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ A man who became a law-abiding shop owner after escaping from prison 17 years ago on a manslaughter conviction says he can accept the state’s recommendation to send him back behind bars for six months.
The state Pardon Board refused Wednesday to recommend immediate freedom for Henry Staggs of Columbia, Tenn., who fled Louisiana soon after beginning a 15- year sentence for the 1969 shooting death of a nightclub bouncer.
Staggs should serve six months in prison followed by five years of supervised parole, the board decided after a three-hour hearing and three hours of deliberations. The final decision rests with Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is in Japan on an economic development trip.
Appearing before the board on his 41st birthday, Staggs said that living as a fugitive while running a business and raising a family ″inflicted more punishment on myself than the state of Louisiana could possibly have done.″
″That’s one of the things that has kept eating at my insides,″ he said. ″I’d be watching a ball game and the police would drive by or somebody would pull up in the driveway. My stomach would tie up in a knot.″
His life as Douglas Gillette, an auto repair shop owner who enjoyed a reputation as a hard-working, law-abiding family man, ended on Feb. 5 when FBI agents arrested him at his business in Columbia.
Staggs’ attorney, Thomas Watson of Nashville, had asked the board to recommend a pardon or a commutation of the remainder of the sentence.
Watson told the board that petitions bearing the names of 2,000 Tennessee residents asking that Staggs be pardoned had been sent to Louisiana authorities.
″There was a Henry Staggs who killed a man 20 years ago and escaped,″ Watson said. ″Then there’s a Doug Gillette. ... It’s almost like they’re two separate people.″
In 1970, Staggs escaped from the Louisiana Correctional and Industrial School in DeQuincy where he was serving time for the shooting death of George Ballas, a nightclub bouncer in Port Allen.
″I cannot undo what happened the night of Dec. 3, 1969, and I must live with that nightmare the rest of my life,″ Staggs told the board. He said he remembered almost nothing of the killing, blaming it on alcoholism that developed while he served in the U.S. Army in Korea during the 1960s.
″I can live with it,″ Staggs said of the board’s decision. ″My family can live with it ... not much compared to 15 years.″
The decision, announced by Pardon Board Chairman Yvonne G. Campbell after a three-hour hearing and another three hours of deliberations by the panel, brought sobs and tears from Staggs’ wife and mother.
″I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to see my kids,″ Staggs told reporters. His wife, Bridget, has said she knew nothing of her husband’s past before his arrest.
Staggs was allowed to remain free on $3,500 bond pending resolution of the case.
Authorities in West Baton Rouge Parish, where the killing took place, opposed the clemency application but no one appeared at the hearing to ask that Staggs’ request be denied. Watson said no family members of the victim had been located.