In a dim, nearly deserted Everglades farm stand, nothing moved.
Orlando Boquete, hybrid of youth and age — his body springy and athletic at 52, but knitted to a startlingly ancient head — peered at the stalls through thick eyeglasses.
Other than a faint buzz, the shimmer of heat trapped in a tin roof, the word “Orlando” was the only sound.
An impatient companion called to him.
“Orlando. Hey, Orlando.”
Not a flicker, head to toe. For more than a decade, Orlando Boquete lived as a fugitive, his very identity a shackle he slipped out of, again and again. He hid bits of sandpaper in his wallet so that in a pinch, he could abrade his fingerprints. Every bit as revealing as the ridges of his fingers, the ordinary, reflexive responses to his own name — a grunt, a sideways glance, a shifting foot — also vanished under the grind of fugitive life. It was as if someone had suddenly clapped hands in front of his eyes and he did not blink. Standing still, not saying yes or hello or uh-huh became a martial art.
The word “Orlando” floated in the thick, steaming air, then sank without trace into the wizened face.
Technically, he was no longer running from anyone, so this denial was vestigial habit. He could say who he was. He lifted a mango, rolled the fruit in the palm of his hand, half-smiled and turned to greet the man behind the counter. He announced that he was Cuban. Then he asked a question.
The fruit man nodded, yes, he was Mexican.
At that, the words erupted from Boquete’s mouth, personal history as volcanic rush.
“These Mexicans in the sugar-cane fields helped me,” he began. “Twenty-one years ago, when I escaped from Glades, I hid with them. Right here, by choo-choo.”
He pointed toward the railroad tracks, but the fruit-stand man did not shift his blank gaze. It was almost possible to see him rewind to the phrase “when I escaped from Glades.”
On the way into the town of Belle Glade, the welcome sign in this capital of sugar cane declares, “Her Soil Is Her Fortune,” but another gravitational force goes unmentioned: Glades Correctional Institution, the state prison one mile down the road. The prison had brought Orlando Boquete to Belle Glade, but it could not keep him there.
He started speaking in gusts of alternating language, Spanish one sentence, English the next phrase, a saga of life in flight — of hiding places in the sugar cane, disguises that tricked the police, gratitude to the Mexicans who helped him.
The fruit man did not bother to mask his anxiety. As he listened to Boquete, he slid the mango off the counter, with no sign that he was going to bag the purchases of this garrulous criminal. Boquete realized he should present his bona fides. He turned and pointed to me — here, this white newspaper writer from New York has come to look at the canals where he hid with alligators, the mucky fields where he crawled like a snake.
“I don’t read newspapers,” the fruit man said blankly.
At Boquete’s shoulder, his nephew, José Boquete, spoke into his ear.
“Tío,” he said. And he stage-whispered into his uncle’s ear, “DNA.” Not missing a beat, the older man spoke the word “exonerated” and the abbreviation DNA and finally, three more letters that registered with the fruit man.
“CNN,” Boquete said.
“Ahh,” said the fruit man, who pointed to the television in the fruit stand, reciting the shards of the tale that lodged in his memory. A Cubano broke out of Glades Correctional. He ran for years. Then he was caught. And finally, he was proved innocent. There must be more to the story, but it was enough for the fruit man. He pushed the mango across the counter. On the house. Boquete protested. The fruit man insisted.
By Feb. 6, 1985, the night he fled prison, Orlando Boquete, 30 years old, had already spent two years behind bars for a sexual assault and burglary he had nothing to do with, the victim of a victim who mistook him for the man who climbed in her window. Ahead of him, as far as the eye could see, were mountains of time: five decades.
Of the 194 people exonerated by DNA tests since 1989, only Orlando Boquete undid society’s mistake by fleeing. And he kept undoing it: over the next decade, he was in police custody again and again, only to vanish in a forest of identities that were false, borrowed and stolen. His prison break was the start of a decadelong journey of near-disaster and daring inches, with no money, no home, no name — but with good looks, charm and a quick mind. Craving family and a bed to call his own, Boquete instead found refuge in an underworld of outlaws. “I did certain things that I had to do,” he said. “To survive. But I never, never harmed anyone.”
He would appear at family gatherings, enchanting the children in stolen moments when he again became, without worry, Orlando Boquete. Then he would quietly slip behind the mask of fugitive life. (A niece, Danay Rodriguez, remembers her parents coming home with a flier that showed her tío Orlando as one of the state’s most wanted men — a mistake, the grown-ups assured her.) He held dozens of jobs, legal and illegal; at times, he worked as legitimately as someone with a fake name could. Other times, he worked por la izquierda, on the left — meaning, he said, under the table.
He had always been good at running. Boquete (pronounced bo-KETT-eh) boarded a shrimp boat in the port of Mariel, Cuba, in 1980, when he was 25, leaving behind one son, two marriages, a career as a diesel mechanic in Havana and a jail record as a Cuban Army deserter — this last credential essential, he believed, to helping him clear bureaucratic hurdles for departing Cuba. He joined 125,000 Cubans, known as Marielitos, who formed an extraordinary exodus that year, when Fidel Castro felt pressure from a poor economy and allowed them to leave.
For two years, Boquete led a life that was pretty much on the level. He worked construction, then in Cafetería La Palma in Miami’s Little Havana and later as clerk in a convenience store on the midnight-to-dawn, no-one-else-will-do-it, armed-robbery shift. By June 1982, Boquete was living with an uncle in a trailer in Key West, hoping for work as a commercial fisherman along the archipelago.
On June 25, with the summer heat at full blast, he had a cousin shave his head of thick black hair, leaving only a mustache. That night, various Boquetes later testified, they sat in the trailer, watching baseball and the World Cup from Spain. Afterward, they strolled to a Tom Thumb convenience store for cigarettes and beer. As they approached, police officers asked them to wait in the parking lot. Another police car pulled up. Inside was a woman who had awoken from a sound sleep in her bed in the Stock Island apartments, a few blocks away, to find a man on top of her. He ejaculated on her bedclothes. He had no hair on his face, she said, and a buzz cut on his head. Another man lurked in the apartment with him, she said, but had not taken part in the assault. They grabbed a few items and left.
From the police car, the victim saw Orlando Boquete and told the officer, “That’s him.” Although he had a prominent mustache, he was the only person in the vicinity with a shaved head. That single glimpse shaped Boquete’s life for decades.
Before trial, the prosecutors offered him a deal: plead guilty and give evidence against the other man who had broken into the apartment, and he would have to serve only one year in jail, followed by two years probation.
On the witness stand, Boquete explained why he had declined. “If my freedom depends on my falsely stating that I’m a culprit or guilty,” he said, “I would rather go to jail. I’m conscious of the fact that if the gentlemen of the jury and the ladies of the jury, if they vote against me, they are going to destroy my life, and I’m not afraid to stand here.”
Besides the alibi provided by his cousins and uncle, the defense seemed to hold one other card. A second man, Pablo Cazola, was arrested for the attack and pleaded guilty. He also signed an affidavit stating that Boquete was not his accomplice. But he refused to testify at trial. At the time, DNA testing — the ultimate proof of identity — had not yet been used in court. So the jury was left to weigh the eyewitness identification of a very confident victim, on the one hand, against the alibi of Boquete and his relatives, all of whom testified he had spent an evening watching television and drinking beer.
It was January 1983, a particularly poor moment for a Marielito accused of a violent crime; there had been many fevered stories about their supposed rampant criminality. Convicted after brief deliberation, Boquete was sentenced to 50 years for the burglary and another five years for attempted sexual battery. The case was over and, so it seemed, was the life Orlando Boquete had sought in America. He was 28 years old.
He moved into the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections with one treasured possession, he told me, passed along by an inmate he met in the county jail: a Spanish-language edition of “Papillon,” the prison memoir that became a movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It is the account of Henri Charrière, who wrote — perhaps accurately, though some scholars are skeptical — of his many escapes from French penal colonies over the years.
“This is a real book,” Boquete told me. “He gives to you power. Esperanza. Hope.”
He set about adapting Charrière’s lessons to his own life, finding principles and tactics that could transfer from penal colonies of the 1930s to a state prison in Florida in the mid-1980s. On one occasion, Charrière was undone by an informant. The lessons, by Boquete’s light: study and silence. “Be patient if you want to escape from somewhere,” Boquete said. “You have to be observant. Don’t run your mouth.”
He studied the terrain. Two fences ran around Glades Correctional. The first was short, easily scalable. Between it and the second was a strip of boundary area, about 10 feet wide, mined with pressure detectors. A footstep would set off alarms. Beyond the boundary was the second fence, about 15 feet, with curls of razor wire running along the ledge. Guards watched from towers, but the pursuit of escapees was left to officers who circled the perimeter in a van, on a road just beyond the outer fence.
A natural, compact athlete, Boquete ran every day, processing the details of prison life. Inmates occasionally were taken by a shotgun squad to work in sugar-cane fields near the prison. On one such excursion, Boquete saw a swampy irrigation canal, about 300 yards beyond the outer wall. It served as a moat, complete with resident snakes and alligators. This gave him pause. “Alligators have territory,” he explained. “If they have babies over there, and you go there, you’re in trouble.”
He made a pinpoint search for useful, secret-worthy inmates and found one man from the town of Belle Glade, who agreed to map the roads and landmarks. He was staked $30 by a Colombian inmate with ties to organized crime.
Charrière wrote in “Papillon” of the ocean waters around Devil’s Island, noting that every seventh wave slapped against the shore with greater strength than the ones that came before or after. Ultimately, he marshaled the power of a seventh wave to get clear of the island. At Glades, Boquete timed the orbit of the van, to see how long he would have from the moment he triggered the ground alarms until his pursuers could get back to him. About a minute, he figured.
In “The Fugitive,” a movie starring Harrison Ford, an innocent man on his way to death row seizes a chance to run for his life. In the unyielding reality of prison, innocent people often do the precise opposite of running. They dig in their heels. Many go before parole boards and refuse to apologize for “their” crimes, unwilling to offer themselves as exemplars of how the penitentiary really is a place of penance. In Pyrrhic glory, these innocent people prolong their incarceration by refusing to fake remorse for things they did not do, while the guilty quickly learn that the carrot of parole awaits those who muster the necessary show of contrition.
Even if Boquete had been willing to profess regret for something he had not done, parole was years away. Still, running would inevitably land him in a purgatory of deception and evasion. Moreover, the law does not permit innocent people to flee prison any more than it permits them to resist arrest. The guards would be armed and ready to shoot.
“I know that can happen,” he reflected years later. “I don’t care. If they kill me, anyway, I’m gone. I finish my sentence. I was ready, physically, mentally, spiritually. I don’t be scared about nothing when I escaped. Only a little scared of alligators.”
The evening of Feb. 6, 1985, was miserable, wet and cold. Perfect. “Nobody likes to jump in the cold water,” Boquete said of the guards. “Nobody wants to stay in the sugar-cane fields in the cold weather. The cold weather makes their job more difficult.”
Just before 8 p.m., as he sorted carrots on an assembly line, he caught the eye of George Wright, a 29-year-old man serving 75 years for robbery. Boquete said they had joined forces while jogging in the yard; Wright, who is back in prison and due to be paroled next month, has a somewhat different version of events but declined, through a relative, to be interviewed.
They slipped outside, unnoticed, and walked past the prison’s construction warehouse. They grabbed a door frame someone had left out for them to use in scaling the two fences, Boquete said, then pulled the frame with them over the first fence. Now they were on the pressure-alarmed land. The 60-second clock started running. They propped the frame against the tall fence, then scrambled up to the barbed wire summit. Boquete, who stands 5-foot-4, went first. He briefly got in the way of the 6-foot-4 Wright, who simply brushed past him.
Once they hit the ground outside, they sprinted to the wide, swampy irrigation canal. They paused, caught their breaths. In the distance, they could hear the dogs. Boquete had steeled himself for this moment, but in his heart, had hoped that perhaps he would not have to get into the water. The advance of the dogs convinced him. They had no choice. They plunged ahead and never saw each other again.
Soon, the baying of the hounds was joined by another sound: the beat of helicopter rotors. Boquete immersed himself, surfacing his nose for a gulp of air, seeing beams of a searchlight sweeping across the fields and water. The dogs barked. He had no religious upbringing but wore a crucifix on a chain around his neck, and he put the cross in his mouth to calm himself.
He later guessed that he had been in the water two hours or so, most of it fully submerged, when he finally pulled himself, shivering, onto the bank of the canal. He crawled on his belly into a field, then dug a shallow burrow with his hands. He dropped into the hollow and covered himself with dirt and grass. He could hear his pursuers shout. He tried to lie still.
Something pinched his face. Then one arm. Thousands of biting ants, resident in his hideout, swarmed over his skin. He shielded his eyes with his hands, and listened as the clatter of the search receded. Finally Boquete climbed out of the canal on the same bank that he went in, the prison side of the moat. His pursuers expanded their search but he had hardly gone any distance. As they moved on, he oriented himself, then half-crawled to an orange grove. He ate five oranges, slumped under a tree, ant-bitten, filthy, exhausted. He was quite happy. This grove was near railroad tracks, a less conspicuous route than the main road. The next stop was a sugar-cane field. There, he dug another hole, and after checking for ants, covered himself and slept.
At daylight, he moved like a snake, belly-crawling short distances, cringing when the cane rustled or popped, then pausing to listen. With a small knife he peeled bits of the cane to eat.
He was running for his life, but barely moving. After his second night in the fields, he saw farm workers nearby and realized he had lingered near the prison long enough. He crossed four more canals, the last so wide that he worried he would not make it to the other side. Finally, he reached the railroad tracks, picked up a stick and, bent like a hobo, followed the rails southwest toward Belle Glade.
By late afternoon, he had emerged from the apron of farmland on the prison outskirts and came to Avenue L. Across the road, big trucks were lined up, leaving for everywhere; the map had shown a depot. In the escape of his imagination, he simply hopped a truck; as a tireless runner in the prison yard, he had not foreseen the toll of a slow-motion sprint. He was spent.
Just east of the tracks was a pay phone. Surely, the authorities would be checking with all the relatives who had visited him. He dialed a cousin in Miami. She was shocked to hear his news; the family knew nothing of his escape. He proposed that she pick him up.
“No, mi primo, no,” she said. No, my cousin, no.
He would stay clear, he told her; she should not worry, he said. “No se preocupe.”
He hung up.
Just beyond the pay phone, a few Mexican migrants idled in front of shacks. The Belle Glade man had told him he might be able to take refuge with them.
It was two full days since he had escaped from Glades Correctional Institution; he had risked getting maimed on razor wire, shot by guards, mauled by dogs, eaten by alligators, poisoned by snakes. It had taken every ounce of strength in his fleet, 30-year-old body to avoid those fates, and he had covered all of 1.2 miles. He was transformed: the innocent person, wrongly accused, now was an outlaw who could be shot on sight. He didn’t care.
“Oye, hermanos,” Boquete called. “Necesito ayuda.”
Hey brothers, I need help.
The Mexicans looked at the bedraggled specimen. Then one of them spoke, Boquete recalled.
“He says, ‘Why do you need help?’ I said, ‘I need help because I run from immigration.’ ”
A day later, one of them asked the logical question: why was a Cuban running from immigration, since Cubans were never deported?
“I tell them the truth. And they laugh, and said, ‘Oh, that was you.’ Because one of them got stopped the night I escaped. They heard the helicopters.”
He worked in the fields for two months, picked up every morning in a truck. Had anyone been looking for the fugitive in the first few days, it is possible that his swollen face would have been hard to recognize. By springtime, he and the migrants decided to pool their earnings and head for Miami. They bought a car for $800. It was mid-April, about 10 weeks after the breakout. Somewhere, Boquete had acquired an Army uniform. Raw as Boquete’s English was, the Mexicans had none. He would drive.
On the road south, a radiator hose burst. As Boquete patched it, a police car stopped. He spoke a phrase he had used often in the previous two years.
“Yes, officer?” he said.
What was going on, the cop wanted to know. Boquete explained about the radiator hose. “Be careful,” the officer advised.
He was. The Mexicans dropped him in Miami, near Little Havana.
Though Boquete’s escape was brave and harrowing, his flight does not particularly distinguish him. In the 1980s, the Florida prisons virtually leaked prisoners: 972 prisoners broke out the year Boquete ran, 1,234 the next year and 1,640 the year after. Most walked away from work crews. Prisoners also left in file cabinets, garbage trucks, dressed as women. From Glades, six murderers dug a tunnel from a chapel, a spectacular breakout that roused alarm and moved state officials to clamp down. The trick was not just getting out but staying out. After the initial burst of excited hunting around a prison, the pursuit of fugitives can be anemic; the search for Boquete and Wright lasted four hours. Prisoners are less often caught than found, unable to sustain endless caution in their affairs. Somewhere, they trip a bureaucratic circuit — they use or respond to their real name, are arrested for crimes much like those that brought them to prison or are bartered by someone else trying to get out of trouble. George Wright, who escaped with Boquete, avoided the authorities for a year and a half, then was caught in the Pacific Northwest.
Boquete turned himself into a hermit crab, sheltered in identities abandoned or left by the dead, an endless scuttle. A résumé, pieced together from his memories and public records, traces a route of dizzying turns and determination.
He worked in sugar-cane fields and danced in the Orange Bowl when Madonna came to perform “La Isla Bonita.” He hauled food in the Florida Keys as a truck loader and sledgehammered into the wall of a clothing store in Miami as a burglar.
He learned to ride a Jet Ski. He taught nieces and nephews to snorkel. He washed dishes in a New Jersey restaurant and ran errands for players in the underground economy of South Florida. One night, with cash in his pocket, he settled at the bar of a fancy hotel in North Miami and proclaimed that he was a boxing trainer who had just won a big bet on a Hector Camacho fight. He bought rounds of drinks for the house and met a real-estate woman from New York. They jogged together on the beach.
All those years, he walked barefoot along a borderline as thin and treacherous as the blade of a knife, the boundary between tension and exhilaration, where freedom was just one unguarded moment — Hey, Orlando! Oye, Boquete! — from vanishing.
He called himself Antonio and Eddie and Hilberto, dead or missing people whose Social Security numbers kept a pulse for a year or so after their demise. A half-dozen times, Boquete said, he was arrested while a fugitive: some of his benefactors left unfinished court business when they departed, and Boquete inherited their petty troubles: drunk-and-disorderly summonses, driving under the influence. He did a week here, 30 days there, he said. He also got into trouble of his own devising.
Rolling his freshly sanded fingertips into police ink pads, he was not connected by the authorities to the man who owed five decades of time to the state. It was simple enough for him to do the short bits, not that he had much choice. In the early days of a six-month sentence, he simply walked away from a jail work crew, making him a fugitive under two identities.
He agreed to take me back over some of the territory he had covered. We traveled through 300 miles of southern Florida, hunting for traces of the self he had worked to keep invisible.
After his Mexican patrons dropped him off in Miami, he returned to Little Havana, a place he knew well. On one of his first days back, with nothing in his pockets, he followed an acquaintance to a utility room in an apartment complex. Someone was using the space to hoard stolen goods, and they found a boom box with detachable speakers. They sold it in three parts. He found a room in an apartment on Northwest Seventh Avenue and took a job at a grocery store, and anywhere else he could find work with no unanswerable questions asked.
The 1980s were years of staggering opportunity and danger in that part of the world. South Florida was the loading ramp for the illegal-narcotics trade in the United States. The Miami River runs through Little Havana. “Lots of boats,” Boquete said. “Lots of drugs.” Some had been handled by a woman he knew as a child in Cuba. Around 1987, she was caught in a federal drug case and was being held in central Florida. She sent word back to Little Havana that she needed clothing, cigarettes and money. Boquete said he went along for the ride to prison, but others in the car balked at going inside, so he did. “I told the guard that everyone else was afraid to see her, I don’t have ID, but I am her cousin,” Boquete said. “They took the clothes.” He relished the audacity of that visit. From the first moments of his escape, when he doubled back toward the prison, hiding in plain sight had proved both tactically shrewd and psychically satisfying.
One of the people who helped him get by — the man who led Boquete to the boom box on his first day back — went on to prosper in the drug trade. On the condition that he be identified only as Ulises because of his own legal problems, the man spoke with wonder at Boquete’s stamina, the new homes every few weeks. “He was not really involved in our group,” Ulises told me. Still, there were many groups and plenty of mundane, if risky, work.
“This guy, Kiki, asked me to hold a package for this guy who would come to my apartment that night,” Boquete said, recalling one incident. Though he did not open it, he guessed that it was a kilogram of cocaine. That evening he heard a car pull up. From the window, he saw a uniformed police officer. In a panic, Boquete dialed his contact. “I tell him, ‘The police are here!’ ” he said. “He said, ‘That’s right, just give him the package.’ ”
Even innocent moments could turn harrowing. One night, he stayed at a friend’s apartment after a party. In the morning, he washed dishes with the front door open. A figure appeared in the corner of his eye.
“Hey, Boquete!” said the man.
Boquete did not lift his gaze from the suds. The man — a uniformed police officer — stood in the doorway calling his name, and finally, Boquete asked what he wanted. A team of officers was on the scene, apparently tipped off to the presence of a fugitive. In a few minutes, all the Mexicans and Cubans in the building were lined up outside.
“If you’re looking for this Boquete, why don’t you bring a picture of him?” Boquete said he demanded.
Another man grumbled loudly about suing for some indeterminate civil rights violation, Boquete recalled, and the officers eventually withdrew.
The encounter rattled him. To find some peace, he flew to Illinois in 1990 and got work in a Weber grill factory. He called himself Antonio Orlando Moralez, a real Marielito who was killed while Boquete was in prison. (The company, Weber-Stephen, does not have payroll records from that time and could not confirm his employment.) A cousin of Moralez’s, who did not want to be named because of immigration concerns, said of Boquete, “He didn’t do anything wrong, and he needed help, so I gave him my cousin’s Social Security number for him to work under.”
The change relaxed Boquete; he did not feel himself under direct police scrutiny. After a year or so, though, worried about how long the Moralez identity would hold up, he moved again, back to Miami for a while, and then to Arizona. It was 1991; he’d been on the run for six years. He was starting to wear down. He returned to Miami, apathetic about being recaptured.
“I was hanging out on the street,” he said, meaning his living came from activities outside the law. One day, he and two other men broke into a clothing store. As they drove off with the loot, a police car followed. They tried to speed away and heaved stolen clothes out of the car, but were quickly caught. In the back of the car was the sledgehammer they used to enter the store. Boquete gave his name as Eduardo Jeres, and a judge put him on probation.
At 37 years old, he had no checkbook, credit cards or bank accounts; he lived with his money, the cash hidden under the kitchen floor of an apartment on 27th Avenue. He welded bars on the windows and doors.
For all that caution, he had not broken out of one prison just to live in another. He often dropped in on his family, went swimming with the children and doted on Danay Rodriguez, his half-brother’s daughter. “He watched us when our parents went out,” said Rodriguez, now 24, recalling that he would bring her the White Diamonds perfume she loved as a girl. To visit them was a heart splurge. They lived aboveground. He could not.
In the summer of 1992, hungry for a quieter, more domestic life, he sent for a nephew, José Boquete, 12, then living in California, to stay with him in Miami while school was out. “I love him from when he was a baby, when he first came from Cuba,” Boquete said. He had a son back in Cuba, not much older. The family trusted him, Boquete said.
For José, it was a thrilling summer. He made friends in the apartment complex. His uncle indulged him and charmed the neighbors. “I made a best friend right away,” José said. “My uncle had these parties, just barbecues, and people came to hang out. It was the greatest.”
One day in August, young José watched the canaries his uncle kept in a cage flapping their wings in agitation. The birds had detected the approach of Hurricane Andrew, soon to become the second-most-destructive storm in United States history.
“I asked my uncle, ‘What’s happening?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything’s O.K.,’ ” José recalled. “He just stayed there on the sofa.”
Behind his barred door, Boquete was content, unwilling to fight a storm. Afterward, with electricity knocked out for days, he rigged a line from a car battery into the apartment and even scavenged contraband ice.
At the summer’s end, José returned to California. His uncle looked for work: the hurricane was a boon to the construction trades, and Boquete found odd jobs at a small company, Fantasy Cabinets, which had contracts with police stations and jails, said Mercy Fleitas, who ran the business with her husband, Serafín.
The Fleitas household knew Boquete as Loquito, the little crazy one, for the high-speed pace he kept at work and play. They did not realize that the wiry man was a fugitive. But Mercy Fleitas had a vivid memory of his anxiety about going into a correctional facility where they were doing work. And nearly 15 years later, hearing about his true identity and exoneration, Fleitas remembered a strong streak of decency.
“You know what about him?” she said. “My husband’s brother had died, and he couldn’t do enough for the kids. He was always bringing them food.”
His life was far from tranquil. Tipped off by a trailer-park neighbor that he was “hot,” Boquete drifted to North Carolina, settling in a rural area before returning again to Florida. At times, Boquete said, he craved to sleep with both eyes closed. To answer to his own name. Instead, over the next four years, he landed in police custody again and again.
In March 1995, acting on a tip about a wanted man, the police came to an apartment where Boquete was staying under the name Hilberto Rodríguez. A gun was found, and he was sentenced to a year. He was assigned to a work crew to clean up around apartments for the elderly across from the Orange Bowl. When he spotted a pay phone in front of the stadium, he could not resist. He called Ulises, the friend who met him when he first returned to Little Havana — now a successful drug dealer — and when Ulises pulled up in a van, Boquete dropped his rake and got in.
He stayed with Ulises and his wife in south Miami. Very early one morning in July 1995, Boquete left for his usual exercise routine in a local park: running and 600 sit-ups, beginning at 6 a.m., before the heat of the day. On the way, he was stopped by a drug-enforcement agent, who asked him if he lived there.
No, he said, “I’m just visiting for a few days from Key West.” The agents searched the house and found two pounds of marijuana. Ulises was away, on a trip to New Orleans with a girlfriend. That left his wife to answer for the pot. Suddenly, Boquete’s status as a fugitive took on a high value. She did not know his real name but knew that he was on the run.
As the officers sorted through his tangle of identities, they decided to process him as Hilberto Rodríguez, the fugitive who had walked away from the Orange Bowl work detail.
“In the police station, the cops say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Boquete recalled. “I am walking to the door. Then a lady sitting at a computer says: ‘Hold on. Palm Beach has something on him, too.’ ” The Glades prison was in the jurisdiction of Palm Beach County. After 10 1/2 years, his fingerprints were linked to Orlando Boquete.
Sentenced under the Hilberto Rodríguez pseudonym for escaping from the county jail, he was returned to the state prison system as Rodríguez, with “Orlando Bosquete” listed as an alias.
After years of running from his true identity, it would turn out that proving who he really was would not be bad at all for Orlando Boquete. That, however, took another decade.
During the 1990s, many prosecutors in Florida, and elsewhere, fiercely resisted DNA testing for people already in prison. Such tests often poked embarrassing holes in the original investigations. After an innocent man died on death row — the prosecutors opposed testing until the man, Frank Lee Smith, was terminally ill — the State Legislature passed a law that explicitly permitted convicts to seek DNA testing, as long as they asked by Oct. 1, 2003. More than 800 prisoners wrote to the Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, which set up the Florida Innocence Initiative to manage the requests. As the deadline approached, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project sent forms to Boquete and others, so that they could start the process without an attorney.
With help from another inmate fluent in English, Boquete filed the paperwork. One day in the spring of 2006, Morrison called him: the test results proved he was not the man who had attacked the woman in Key West. He flushed his parole rejection papers down the toilet. Boquete now had a lawyer in Key West, Hal Schuhmacher, representing him, along with the Innocence Project’s Morrison and Barry Scheck (with whom I wrote a book about wrongful convictions in 2000).
Last May 23, Boquete was delivered in shackles to the county courthouse in Marathon for a hearing. At his request, Morrison brought him a white jacket and pants, 30 waist, for his appearance. His family gathered in the courtroom. The moment swelled with uncommon forces: liberation, vindication, resurrection, humility. “I could sit here and talk for as much time as anybody wanted to give me,” the state’s attorney, Mark Kohl, told the judge, “but every minute that I spend talking to you is another minute that an innocent man sits in jail on this charge.”
The judge, Richard Payne, made the same point. “No words spoken by this court today . . . would do justice to the penalty that you have been required to pay for offenses that now we know conclusively that you were not guilty of committing,” he said. “You are hereby ordered to be immediately released from the custody of Florida.”
The state had measured the system against the case of Boquete and recognized its failure. Still, that would not be the end. The federal government, through the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also took its measure of Boquete. While he had been legally admitted to the United States in 1980, he had never completed the application to gain permanent status. So instead of being freed at the moment he was declared innocent, Boquete was taken in handcuffs by immigration agents to a federal detention center.
Yes, Boquete was cleared of the 1982 case. But had he proved himself a menace to society while on the run? Faced with a large question, immigration authorities seemed to use a microscope to answer it. The burglary of the clothing store and a gun found where he had been staying were “a concern with regard to his potential danger to the community,” wrote Michael Rozes, the field office director for immigration enforcement in Miami. “An escape for which he was eventually convicted, regardless of the fact that this conviction has since been overturned, shows your client’s propensity toward absconding.”
Prosecutors in two counties, Miami-Dade and Monroe, weighed in to urge that the immigration officials look beyond a rap sheet that, in Boquete’s case, was singularly unilluminating.
“Public employees exist to serve the public,” Mark Kohl wrote. “If you cannot conclusively determine that he is a dangerous person, I urge you to release him at once so as to not compound the mistakes made 23 years ago.”
Finally, immigration officials released Boquete on Aug. 21, only after he signed papers conceding that he could be deported for his crimes as a fugitive.
That night, he ate two croquetas and drank a batido de mamey at a quiet dinner with family members, his immigration lawyer, John Pratt, and another innocent Florida man, Luis Díaz, who served 26 years. He corrected what he said were misspellings of his name in official records as Bosquette or Bosquete. The next morning, he went for a run on the beach at 6 a.m. Through Hal Schuhmacher, he got a job doing landscape work for two real-estate agents in the Florida Keys, Morgan Hill and Paula Nardone, who gave him a place to stay. Once a month, he makes a four-hour trek by bus and train from Marathon to Miami, to report to immigration.
A few weeks after his release, Boquete agreed to go with me on a trip back to the prison town of Belle Glade, along with his nephew José, now a musician living in Miami. In the prison parking lot, he squinted at the new buildings. He pointed out the perimeter road and the high fence. An officer told us to move.
As we drove along Main Street in Belle Glade, he spotted Avenue L. “Turn here, this is where I saw the Mexicans,” he commanded. We got out. Not surprisingly, no one remembered an ant-eaten hobo who suddenly appeared on a winter day 21 years earlier.
Yet here were the simple landmarks of his story. He darted along Avenue L, running from one spot to the next. The railroad tracks that he followed away from the prison. A square patch of ground of faintly different hue than the surrounding area. “This is where the pay phone was,” he shouted. He found the lot where he stayed with the Mexicans, but the migrants and their shacks were gone. In front of a deserted, sun-bleached wooden building, he said, “I think this might have been where the trucks were.”
Charged with memory, he looked back from age 52 on the 30-year-old who crawled out of canal waters and sugar cane to reclaim his life. The places were faded; the decades were mapped in the gullies and ravines that run through his face.
What if he had not gone out for beer on that June night in 1982, at the very moment the police were looking for the man with the buzz cut?
What would have come of his life?
“Oh,” Boquete said. “Oh. That’s a real question. Too many beautiful things to do, I believe. Exactly what would have happened, I don’t know. I believe I’d have gotten married, I’d have a little business, property, boat. I’m not talking only about material things.
“Maybe I pass away already. I believe, if I am still alive, like I am now, I’d be much better. ”
His words, while true, suddenly ring in his ears as impolitic. “I’ve got people around me,” he said, citing lawyers, benefactors, family.
Then he paused. “In reality, I don’t have nothing,” he said. It has been 21 years since he last saw the spot where the railroad tracks met Avenue L — the crossroads of his life, the point where he passed from captivity to, well, what? Did he know actual freedom on the run?
“Sometimes,” he said, instantly. “Sometimes. When I have a party, when I have made money, when I feel good, when I got a nice place. It doesn’t have to be a nice place — my own place. When I’m cold — when the police don’t look for me.
“I feel free many, many times. Why did I escape from prison? Because I want to be free. I want to feel free. I see the police, I don’t be scared.”
We turn back toward the car. Then we see it: a sign on the wall of the abandoned wood building, paint-dimmed, the words still legible. “Glades Logistics, Truck Broker.” All those years before, he might have jumped one of their trucks and gone wherever it took him. Instead, step by step, he made his own road, finally circling back. Orlando Boquete: walking, not running.
Jim Dwyer, a reporter for The Times, i
s the author, with Kevin Flynn, of ‘102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.”