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Two Mississippi State Penitentiary escapees who made their way to Lake County in June came here because they thought the further north they went the less likely they were to get shot by someone who recognized them from a television broadcast.

Instead, they almost ended up being shot by police in Lake County after they opened fire on a patrol officer who stopped their stolen van for speeding.

The officer escaped injury and initiated a miles-long high-speed chase down Interstate 65 from Merrillville to Lowell after which the fleeing convicts bailed out of the van and ran into a cornfield.

Roy Harper, 42, who was returned to the Parchman, Miss., prison in August, said in a letter to The Times received last week he and fellow escapee John Woolard knew they had been featured on a segment of the television program "America's Most Wanted" shortly after the May 28 prison break.

"We made the decision to head to the northeastern part of the country when we discovered we had been on America's Most Wanted'," Harper wrote in a letter to a Times reporter.

"Our reasoning was that the greatest threat to us was being recognized by a citizen who had seen the show, and we felt it was less likely we'd run into any armed citizens in the Northeast as opposed to say, the South or West. Too many citizens in the South and West carry guns."

Harper and Woolard were questioned extensively by law enforcement after their arrest June 18 in Lake County as to why they had come to Indiana.

"I was asked on several occasions while in custody in Indiana why we had come to Indiana," Harper wrote. "I never gave the answer to that while there because I wasn't sure if my answer could affect me in some negative manner or not. Anyway, I see no danger now."

While in Lake County Jail, Harper told reporters he feared being returned to Mississippi because of potential retribution for his escape.

Thus far, he said, "I have not been personally attacked since I've returned (but) there have been changes that made conditions for everyone quite miserable. Electrical outlets have been removed from all cells so that we can no longer operate our fans.

"This being one of the hottest summers in Mississippi history was not only extremely uncomfortable but downright dangerous to inmates' health. I read in the Clarion-Ledger, out of Jackson, that 17 people had died in the state from heat in the month of July alone. I hate to imagine a future of summers here if the electrical outlets are not replaced."

Harper, who is serving an 88-year term for several robberies, and Woolard, 37, a convicted killer serving a life sentence, broke out of the prison and headed for Webb, Miss., about 11 miles north where they tied up a couple and hid in their home until the pursuit died down, then stole their car and drove north.

They drove through Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia before abandoning the car and stealing a van from an Indiana man in Charleston, W. Va. They spray-painted the brown van blue and drove to Indiana, where they headed north on Interstate 65 after staying for a day in the Indianapolis area.

They got off the interstate at U.S. 30 and seeing security glass on a fast-food restaurant decided the area was a high-crime neighborhood and returned to I-65, this time heading south. As their stolen van sped up to get onto the deserted highway at about 2 a.m., they passed a Lake County Sheriff's Police cruiser.

Patrol Officer Ray Corman noticed the speeding van and pulled it to the side of the road. When he walked to the driver's window, he later told reporters, the driver said "What's up?" and pointed a shotgun out the window. Corman dived for the pavement as the driver -- identified as Woolard -- fired. Corman returned fire, hitting the van.

Other departments joined in the chase, which went into a truck stop at Ind. 2 east of Lowell, where the two convicts abandoned the van and disappeared into a cornfield. Two days later, Harper was arrested in St. John and Woolard a few hours later west of Lowell. Both were armed, but neither offered resistance.

Both were charged in Lake County, but in July charges were dropped in order to smooth their immediate return to Mississippi. Both men said in court they preferred to remain in Indiana because they feared retribution for their escape.

"We were flown back to Mississippi on a small plane," Harper wrote, "and other than some turbulence and a little light rain, the trip was uneventful."

-Mark Kiesling can be reached at markk@howpubs.com or (219) 662-5330.

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