A few days ago, Robert Stackowitz and his attorney had a grim conversation. Basically, the lawyer told him, they were near the end of the line.
Stackowitz, 71, is the fugitive who escaped from a Georgia prison camp 48 years ago and was finally tracked down in Connecticut in May. He was to face yet another extradition hearing there next Monday.
“I told him that he may never be coming home again,” said attorney Norm Pattis.
Then Stackowitz got a break. Not a jailbreak, but something better.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles announced it had granted him a “medical reprieve,” allowing Stackowitz to continue to live in Connecticut under that state’s supervision.
“Because of his serious medical issues, the board approved the medical reprieve and determined his conditions would best be addressed outside a correctional facility,” spokesman Steve Hayes said Wednesday. He said it was a matter of “punishment versus compassion.”
He added, “It is a form of clemency.”
Connecticut officials still must approve the arrangement for Stackowitz, whose health problems include congestive heart failure, bladder cancer, diabetes, skin problems and swelling in his legs. Sick as Stackowitz is, the state of Georgia would have had to assume responsibility for his medical care had it forced him to come back and serve out his sentence.
‘Of course I’m happy’
Stackowitz, speaking from his home Wednesday, addressed the decision in terms usually reserved for a death row inmate receiving a reprieve from the governor. In short, he thought a prison sentence would have killed him.
“It’s kind of a matter of life and death. If I went back there I wouldn’t have done well,” he said. In his typically laconic manner, he added, “Of course I’m happy.”
He recalled that after his capture he spent four days behind bars before being bonded out. “I ended up in the hospital for kidney failure,” he said.
Stackowitz received national attention when he was caught in Connecticut in May after nearly half a century on the run. He had been leading a quiet life in Sherman, a small city in the western part of the state. He was known as the guy who ran a boat repair service in his yard and loved the meatball grinders at the Sherman IGA grocery.
Initially Georgia officials insisted he be returned to Georgia to face justice. They said they would not even consider his health issues until he was back here. His attorney submitted the reprieve request, replete with medical records, in July, arguing that even the plane trip to Georgia could endanger Stackowitz’s health.
Stackowitz was convicted of “robbery by force” in Henry County in 1966 in connection with the robbery of a home. He was sentenced to 17 years in a Georgia prison but escaped after about two.
Stackowitz’ escape was pretty straightforward, if not downright easy. Held at a prison camp in Carroll County in 1968, he says he was such a good mechanic that prison officials allowed him to work off-site on county school buses parked nearby. They even provided a vehicle for him to get around.
“One morning I got in the truck and drove away,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
‘We were all rooting for him’
Even as Georgia law enforcement officials proudly announced the fugitive’s capture, saying it sent a message to everyone on the lam, news of the arrest prompted an outpouring of support for Stackowitz. People in Sherman said he was a good man who had lived and worked in their community for years, that he was sickly and no threat to society.
Mike Luzi, who’s owned the Sherman IGA for 20 years, said people donated hundreds of dollars to buy food for Stackowitz.
“We were all rooting for him,” Luzi said Wednesday. “People were saying, ‘Please let him go or the guy’s going to die.’”
On Wednesday afternoon, Stackowitz said he has yet to shake the anxiety building up about Monday’s hearing. He spends much of his day at his kitchen table, his bottles of pills and ointments arrayed before him. He sleeps 10 feet away on a sleeper-recliner, though sleep has been elusive.
Now he can think long-term again, he said. He hopes to start up his boat business again, though his employees and customers have moved on. Even before all this, he couldn’t do much of the work himself. He’d stand on the high porch of his gray wooden home and offer direction to the workers below.
'Stay alive as long as I can'
He’s also hoping his health improves enough to undergo bladder cancer surgery.
His goal? “Stay alive as long as I can,” he said. “Die in my own home.”
Georgia’s medical reprieve said, “If approved by Connecticut, Stackowitz will remain under community supervision in Connecticut through the end of his sentence, which is July 14, 2022.”
Connecticut officials will send Georgia annual supervision and medical evaluations to ensure he's in compliance with the terms of the medical reprieve.
Pattis, Stackowitz’s lawyer, said conversations with Connecticut officials seemed to indicate they are amenable to the arrangement.
Stephen Sedensky, the state attorney prosecuting Stackowitz in Connecticut, said officials there are receiving the initial paperwork from Georgia.
Just in time for Monday’s hearing.