Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Violent past catches up with fugitive; Murder: After decades eluding the law across the nation, a Baltimore killer returns to prison -- and the past she tried to hide.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By the time police caught up with Bertha Theresa Marie Keene in Florida on Dec. 1, nearly 20 years had passed since the night she used a rope of bedsheets to flee the maximum security women's prison in Jessup. It was her fourth successful escape, a record that still stands.

Thirty years had passed since, in an LSD-alcohol haze, she fatally shot the doorman at a Waverly nightclub for refusing to let her in, a crime that got her a life sentence.

And it had been even longer since she emerged from a troubled childhood to become a dancer on The Block at Blaze Starr's Two O'Clock Club.

From the hard-bitten world of drugs and prostitution in Baltimore and the grim regimen of prison, Keene's life on the run took her on a sort of New Age fugitive trail: from the sailboat she lived on in the Florida Keys as Pat Leno, to the City of the Sun commune in New Mexico where she called herself Sheila Williams and worked as an herbal healer, to the organic coffee farm in Honaunau, Hawaii, where she was known as Rose Guest.

The friends she made along the way say the Baltimore street tough was transformed into a gentle, spiritual person, now 50, who worked uncomplainingly, generously offered help and comfort and loved the son she was raising.

Michael Craig, who owns the Rooster Farms coffee fields where Keene worked in the early 1990s, realized Keene's true identity only when he saw her on the television show "America's Most Wanted" shortly after she left the island.

"We dropped our jaw when we found out," Craig said. "She's a very hard worker and such a nice person. No hint of anything wrong. She's very healthy, body and mind both."

Helen Webber, who spent the early 1980s with Keene at City of the Sun and gave her shelter for six months in the mid-'90s, says she sensed early on that" Sheila" had a hidden past and eventually learned the truth. But that did not change her opinion.

"She was running, running for her life. She had an obsessive fear of going back to prison," said Webber, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska. "But I know this much: She's not a menace. She has much more to give and does give much more than the average person."

But for the shattered Baltimore family of Melvin "Lucky" Luckart, the cheerful father and avid fisherman whose life she took when he was 29, she remains a killer, and one whose escape and freedom made them bitter over justice undone.

"I grew up pretty much taking care of myself and wondering what it would have been like to have a dad," said Roxanne Thrift, a slight woman with short blond hair who herself is now 29. "When they caught her, I said, 'Now she'll know what it's like to spend her life without her son, just like I spent my life without my father.' "

Roxanne was 3 months old when her father died, and she blames her troubled life, in part, on his murder. She recalls, at age 11, poring over old news articles about the murder, the trial and the prison escapes at the Catonsville library. In tragic symmetry, she tumbled down the same path as her father's killer, getting into LSD and other drugs and ending up a dancer on The Block.

Now married, working in a VFW kitchen and living with her in-laws in Carney, Thrift says she treasures her father's fishing tackle box, which as a teen-ager she converted into a makeup box. "It's the only thing of his I've ever had," she said.

'Disciplinary segregation'

Today, Keene sits in solitary confinement at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, resuming her life term for murder and awaiting trial on an escape charge that carries a maximum penalty of 10 additional years. While in theory she eventually could be paroled, "the majority of people in Maryland sentenced to life die in prison," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Keene, who was prosecuted under the name Theresa Grosso and is identified by that name in prison records, is on "disciplinary segregation" as punishment for her 1979 escape, said Warden Patricia Schupple. Keene is not permitted to make telephone calls or have visitors for six months, Schupple said. She could not be interviewed for this article.

But her voice can be heard in letters she has written since three Maryland state troopers flew to Levy County, Fla., and brought her back to prison Dec. 8. The letters were written to David Swanson, 56, a Florida real estate investor who met her in 1996 and planned to marry her in April. Swanson has hired a lawyer and a private investigator to see what can be done to win her freedom or at least shorten her term.

"God works in mysterious ways," she wrote to Swanson on Dec. 9. "All the hopes, beliefs, and longings that the good I had done in the past 19 years would make a difference seem to be weighing very heavy in my heart, spirit and being at this time."

She added, "I did indeed kill a man in 1969 and all the praying and asking for forgiveness all these years doesn't change the reality of what's happening, where I'm at, and where I'll probably spend the rest of my life. It seems, feels and looks as though the real punishment has just begun."

Sitting on the banks of the Suwannee River under a cyprus tree on a cool and breezy day this month, Swanson recalled the woman he knew as Rose Williams as a marvelous cook who loved to talk about "the spirit guides, the angels" and other New Age topics.

"One of the things I really liked about her was her clean lifestyle," he said. "No smoking, drugs or alcohol."

Evenings at their rural Williston, Fla., home revolved around the vegan dinners that Keene would cook, Swanson recalled. Vegans are strict vegetarians who consume no animal products, not even milk.

"She was an artist in the kitchen and was an excellent vegan cook," said Swanson, who invited her to live with him a week after they met. "It was wonderful food that was beautifully prepared, with lettuce, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados and what have you."

In a Dec. 21 letter, she told Swanson that she missed the "superfood" meals that had become a staple in her life on the run.

"While I was drinking my coffee today, I was pretending it was carrot, garlic and superfood," she wrote. "And as I munched on my frosted sugar flakes, I pretended it was organic blue corn chips."

'Unhappy and unfortunate'

The letters speak of a different universe and a different personality from the 21-year-old murderer of 1969. No members of Keene's Baltimore family agreed to be interviewed about her early life, but the judge at her 1970 trial said she had led an "unhappy and unfortunate life," including time in detention homes and medical institutions because of a violent temper.

On the night of Sept. 27, 1969, she, her twin sister, Billie, and a third woman, Betty Jo Cato, after a night of drinking in Pittsburgh, aboard a plane to Baltimore and at Baltimore bars, arrived at Judge's Musical Lounge.

Judge's, named for the owner's nickname, was a popular dancing and drinking spot on Greenmount Avenue north of 33rd Street that featured a slide leading from an upper balcony to the dance floor. Melvin Luckart was the doorman -- not a beefy bouncer type, but a tall, slender, smiling man who ordinarily charmed drunks rather than muscling them. On Saturdays, he would open the club to let neighborhood children play on the slide.

"He liked his fish and his women," said Randy Luckart, 60, his brother. "Women would fall all over him."

This night, however, when he refused entrance to the intoxicated Keene, she became enraged, ran to retrieve a .25-caliber handgun from her car and shot him in the chest. He fell down the small steps at the entrance, where he was declared dead minutes later. According to testimony, Keene told her sister she had shot the doorman, then went home, smoked a cigar and changed into casual clothes.

At her trial, Keene did not deny shooting Luckart but said she could not remember anything about what happened at Judge's. She testified that while she had used LSD some 200 times, she had never mixed the drug with alcohol until that night.

Her first prison breakout came in February 1971, a few months after she had reported to the Maryland prison for serious female offenders. She escaped again in 1972 and 1976, remaining at large on one occasion for 16 months.

It was while she was on the run in 1976 that she met William R. Palm, a former air traffic controller nicknamed Bumpy who came to her rescue in Palm Beach, Fla., when she was being harassed by a van full of men. Police grabbed her after an afternoon of sailing with Palm. But when she ran from prison for the fourth time, in 1979, she ran to him. They lived on Palm's boat and weathered a hurricane together.

The next year, Keene and Palm had a son, Richard, born at a natural birthing center in Gainesville, Fla. For the next two years they moved often, staying one step ahead of the FBI fugitive squad. FBI files track her in her first two years of freedom to Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia and Texas. In Dothan, Ala., she was arrested for shoplifting cigarettes, but she had fled by the time the fingerprints set off alarms, said FBI spokesman Peter A. Gulotta Jr.

By 1982, she was settled at City of the Sun in Columbus, N.M., which Webber described as a community of about 25 families on 160 acres "set aside for truth-seekers seeking to live their highest ideals." Keene was popular with other residents, Webber said, often presenting them with fresh-squeezed carrot juice or sprouts she had grown.

"She was a busy, generous, industrious lady," Webber said.

After leaving City of the Sun, Keene spent three years in Hereford, Ariz., helping a woman care for her invalid brother, according to Swanson. By 1986, she had moved to Hawaii, where she spent most of the next eight years, working on the coffee farm, home-schooling her son in a cabin on Mount Kola and avoiding detection -- even as she was featured on "America's Most Wanted" and in a Cosmopolitan magazine article on the most-wanted women criminals.

In 1994, Keene was severely beaten by a boyfriend and hospitalized with broken ribs and severe lacerations. But when she heard a nurse calling the police, she fled the hospital and traveled to New Mexico, where Webber allowed her to recuperate at her bed-and-breakfast. Later, the two women traveled together through California and Oregon.

Eventually, Keene shared much of her real past, expressing the desire to stop running, Webber said. She said Palm, who could not be reached for comment for this article, hoped to recover some back pay from his air traffic job and hire a lawyer to counsel Keene about turning herself in.

But Keene also recounted with emotion the violence, sexual abuse and isolation she had experienced in prison. Palm's money never materialized, and Keene could not bring herself to return to Maryland, Webber said.

'Helped me through'

In 1996, Keene returned to Gainesville, where an acquaintance she knew from the birthing center introduced her to Swanson, who was severely depressed by the death of his wife, Janice, to cancer a month earlier. Swanson said he was told the woman was wanted for murder, but he didn't care.

"At the time I met her, I had felt my life had ended," Swanson said. "The lady that I came to know as Rose helped me through a lot of grief."

The turning point in their relationship, he said, came when he was sitting on the couch crying. "My nose was running and Rose sat down beside me and started rocking me. Then my head fell into her lap, and I just sobbed like a baby," Swanson said.

They made plans to marry April 10 and spoke of building a business together -- raising bloodhounds for law enforcement officers. He honored her latest alias by having a rose tattooed on his arm; he still wears on his pinky the engagement ring he hoped to give her.

"When you're in prison and you get out, you're so overwhelmed by the beauty of the world that you don't dwell on the hardships anymore," Swanson said. "That's what happened to her. She became a very spiritual woman who touched everyone she came in contact with."

Keene, Swanson said, enjoyed taking long walks through the watermelon farms near his gated, rural estate. On one of those walks, she met a man named Jay F. Heron, with whom she developed a friendship. Eventually, she confided to him that she was a fugitive. Eventually, Heron decided to turn her in.

On the afternoon of Dec. 1, Heron drove her away from Swanson's house on the pretense of meeting a friend who had marijuana to sell. As the friend approached the car, the Levy County sheriff's deputies pounced. (It is unclear whether she was seeking marijuana, and no drug was found.)

Seated between two Maryland troopers on the plane home, Keene was contrite and tearful.

"She said she felt very bad for the family of the victim," said Maryland State Police Cpl. Vaughn W. Foreman. "She was nervous about the media. She was nervous about prison."

Now, Keene spends 23 hours a day in her cell, leaving to exercise alone for an hour a day. In Arizona, her son, Richard, 19, and Palm are working to open a chocolate company to raise funds for Keene's defense. They hope to sell chocolate candies in the shape of the word "love" over the Internet and through church fund-raisers.

In her letters to Swanson, Keene expresses shock at the change in her lifestyle.

"Just hearing the anger and vulgar language is unreal," she wrote. "It's not that I feel any better than anyone, I'm just of a different spirit now. And to think: I used to be just as much a part of this scene as I was like them.

"I wish I could prove how un-dangerous I really am. But that's not going to happen. I have no one to blame but myself for what's happening, and I don't even want to continue doing that anymore. In time, the shock of all this will wear off and hopefully I'll be able to condition myself to find the peace within and accept the punishment due me -- and hope for a miracle. I would like to think that this has all happened for the greater good."

For Melvin's Luckart's family, at least, Keene's return to the prison she escaped so many times is indeed for the greater good. His daughter says she thinks her mother, Mary, who died of leukemia at age 37, would have been gratified to see the end of this fugitive's extraordinary run.

"I only wish she could have still been here," Thrift said. "She was waiting all her life for that woman to be caught."

Pub Date: 1/15/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
55°