That most romantic of teen-age escapes -- joining The Greatest Show on Earth -- lifted Raymond Charles Haney from the despair of a Chicago public housing project. More than a decade ago, it brought him to Baltimore where, from atop a circus elephant, he found a wife and a new hometown.
"He loved to make the kids smile, and he loved to make them happy," his close friend, Rhonda Alexander, recalled yesterday. "Even after he left the circus, he taught gymnastics to children."
In the face of the unsettling news that Mr. Haney was the driver of a car that fatally struck five people -- including four children -- Ms. Alexander and others who know him went out of their way yesterday to describe him as a hard-working family man. Friends said he neither drank nor used drugs, and would even leave the Keno screen at the local carryout as soon as his girlfriend rang his beeper.
Mr. Haney "is not the monster that people are making him out to be," Ms. Alexander said.
He told police that a car cut him off and forced him to swerve off the road and onto the sidewalk. He told a reporter it was all an accident, that he was just trying to get to work.
And, said Ms. Alexander, he called her yesterday afternoon and quietly voiced his anguish.
"He's so upset, he's completely devastated," she said. "He said today started out just like every morning. Then, he said, somebody cut him off and his car went out of control.
"I asked him, 'Were you rushing? Were you speeding?' and he said no, he wasn't late for work and he wasn't rushing. He's so scared, he doesn't know what's going to happen now."
At 32, Mr. Haney seemed to friends and neighbors to live mostly an unremarkable life until yesterday. He is long removed from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he rode a unicycle and played basketball as a member of the King Charles Troupe.
Said to be divorced from the woman he saw from the elephant and later married, he apparently lives in his girlfriend's Woodlawn apartment.
Neighbors said the woman has a 10-year-old son, and that the couple has a 3-year-old daughter and a girl not yet 2 months old. He is a trim, clean-cut man who sports a tattoo of a heart on his forearm.
Mr. Haney works at the Cherrywood Manor Extended Care Centre in Reisterstown. Ms. Alexander said he is head of the cleaning department. Employees would only confirm that he worked there.
Several weeks ago, he took a second job as a night manager at a Burger King restaurant across from the nursing home.
Kathy Hart, general manager of the Burger King, said the news of the accident stunned restaurant employees.
"He's one of the better assistants I've had," she said. "He is responsible, and he's respected by the crew."
She said Mr. Haney, who normally worked a 4 p.m. to midnight shift, last worked Monday night.
Beyond his workaday life, Mr. Haney has found himself in some minor legal jams, court records show.
Accused in a lawsuit of moving out of an Owings Mills apartment while owing more than $800, the suit was dismissed in 1993 because he had filed for bankruptcy, court records show. In 1988, he received three years of probation for impersonating a police officer. Court records show that Mr. Haney flashed a phony badge as he drove alongside a couple in a car and ordered them to pull over.
After they stopped, the would-be police officer got out of his car, approached and said, "What's the problem? I'm a state trooper," according to Towson District Court files.
Brad Schniederman, the driver of the car, challenged the authenticity of the badge. "Oh yeah, take it easy," the man said before walking back to his car and driving away.
Mr. Haney was charged after the motorist, who wrote down the license plate number of the phony police officer's car, identified him from photos, court records said.
Mr. Schniederman said in a telephone interview yesterday Mr. Haney had been "driving wildly in some sort of cat-and-mouse game with another driver" just before pulling him over.
"Any type of driving weirdness doesn't surprise me about him," Mr. Schniederman said. "He seemed to view himself as able to carry out these kinds of stunts, driving crazy and acting like he was a cop."
Maryland motor vehicle officials suspended Mr. Haney's driver's license in February 1993 because of his failure to pay a traffic citation he received in Indiana. But Mr. Haney paid the ticket, and the suspension was lifted, said Jim Lang, a Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman.
No other citations are shown on his driver profile, which dates back 36 months, records show.