Authorities: 4-decade fugitive used dead boys' IDs
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Convicted armed robber Ronald Dwaine Carnes eluded authorities for nearly 41 years after escaping from a North Carolina prison. But with the help of facial recognition technology, investigators say he's been caught living in northeastern Iowa under the identities of two 5-year-old boys who died in the 1940s.
Carnes, 69, made an initial appearance Thursday in federal court in Iowa on charges of misusing Social Security numbers, aggravated identity theft and being a felon and fugitive in possession of a firearm. Investigators say Carnes spent decades underground after escaping from a now-closed prison in Huntersville, North Carolina, in August 1973.
"It's kind of odd to have somebody be able to survive that many years without being detected," said Paul Steier, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's bureau of investigation, which helped crack the case. "He had basically started a new life."
Carnes apparently used the identities of Louie Vance and William Henry Cox for years as he traveled from Chicago to Georgia to Washington state to Iowa, according to a complaint filed Monday. He convinced the Social Security Administration to grant him disability and retirement benefits under both names for years. But after moving into a modest brick home in Waterloo, Iowa, last year, investigators say a mistake and new technology ended his long run from justice.
Facial recognition software, used by the Iowa DOT since 2008, flagged Carnes' photo after he applied for a license in Vance's name in March. The smiling face appeared to be the same man — black, 5 feet 11 inches tall and trim, with a mustache and the same large mole or birthmark on his forehead — who had obtained an Iowa license last year under Cox's name.
Investigators soon determined the individual was using the Cox and Vance identities to receive Social Security benefits. Disability payments meant for Cox started in 2003, while retirement benefits intended for Vance began in 2009. They were being deposited into a Boeing Employees Credit Union Account opened when Carnes lived in Washington. But authorities didn't yet know who was behind the apparent scheme.
Investigators served a search warrant at Carnes' Waterloo home in April, where they found birth certificates for Vance and Cox and other documents suggesting he was really Carnes, according to court documents. By his bed they found ammunition and a .380-caliber pistol, the same model found near Carnes' vehicle when he and an accomplice were arrested in the 1970 armed robbery of a female convenience store clerk in Winston-Salem, documents show.
Carnes was arrested in April following the warrant, and a fingerprint match soon verified his true identity, investigators say.
Relatives of Cox and Vance, meanwhile, told investigators that both were 5-year-old boys when they died in accidents seven decades ago, according to an affidavit signed by agent Juston Jennings of the Social Security Administration. Cox, born in Denver, died in 1949. Vance, born in Ruleville, Mississippi, died the previous year.
Carnes was three years into a 20-year sentence when he escaped from Mecklenburg Correctional Center. The escape is so old that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety doesn't have any details about what happened, and the prison has been closed 16 years, agency spokesman Keith Acree said.
The month after Carnes escaped, someone applied for a Social Security card in Chicago for Vance, according to Jennings' affidavit. In 1979, the Social Security Administration assigned a Social Security number for Cox. Carnes had also obtained a Georgia driver's license in 1999 under Cox's name, the affidavit said.
Prosecutors in Black Hawk County, Iowa, dropped charges against Carnes on Thursday to allow federal prosecutors to take the lead. Carnes, who's been jailed without bond since his arrest, agreed Thursday not to challenge his continued detention. A preliminary hearing was set for July 9.
North Carolina officials will only seek Carnes' extradition for the escape after he completes any federal prison time that results from the case, Acree said.
The arrest surprised retired attorney Robert Sapp in North Carolina, who represented Carnes on the 1971 appeal of the robbery conviction but doesn't remember details.
"Wow," he said. "If he was doing what they said he did, I hope they lock him up. I shouldn't say that about a former client, but I don't remember him at all."