The taxpayer-paid trips are an incentive, officials say. But victims' families are upset.
Sentinel Staff Writer
July 1, 2007
Convicted murderer Robert Craig, who once sat on Florida's death row, has gotten a pair of cross-country rides at taxpayer expense so he could be closer to family.
The 3,000-mile trips incense Toby Farmer, 29, whose own family was wrecked in 1981 by the cattle-rustling farmhand, one of two men convicted of the notorious Wall Sink murders of Lake County rancher John Eubanks and Farmer's father, Bobby.
"He's already had umpteen more chances than he gave my daddy," said Farmer, a corrections officer at the Lake County Jail.
Craig benefited from a little-known prisoner-exchange program that in the past 12 months has shipped 173 Florida inmates to other states to serve their time. Florida has taken in 177 inmates from elsewhere during the same period.
State officials justify inmate transfers, saying they help maintain order behind bars and can improve a prisoner's chance to stay straight when released. But Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said he was appalled to learn the state has paid to accommodate Craig's requests -- a cost of nearly $5,000.
"Considering that the Farmer family was absolutely devastated by this heartless crime, it is outrageous," Ridgway said. "Mr. [Bobby] Farmer's wife . . . literally died of a broken heart shortly after, so [their] two very young boys essentially became orphans. And now one of the killers gets to move to be closer to his own family? Outrageous isn't a strong enough word."
Craig, 49, whose death sentence was commuted in 1998 to life in prison, returned to Florida on May 31 from California, where he was allowed to serve the past five years to be near a woman he met and married while on death row.
"We are sympathetic to the concerns of victims' families," said Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. "But our mission is not punitive in nature. Privileges like visitation are important for prison security, staff safety and inmate well-being."
Prisons can dangle visits as an incentive for an inmate to behave, said Jeff Mellow, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"It's the carrot-and-stick approach," he said. "A prisoner who acts up can lose the privilege of a visit, which is often the only thing he has to look forward to."
Law-enforcement officials sometimes promise a suspect a transfer to another state in exchange for testifying against co-defendants.
Florida-bred, Craig had no family in California until Nov. 20, 1998.
On that day, in a civil ceremony at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, he married Jeri Lynne Koffel, then 47, a Long Beach, Calif., caterer he met when he responded to a query that she sent to a death-row inmate for a religious-studies class.
She said she flew to visit him twice a month for almost four years.
Craig was granted a move to California in April 2002, and the families of his victims found out months after he was gone.
"We weren't even asked for our opinion," said Bobby Farmer's brother, Travis, who retired last year from the Sumter County Sheriff's Office after 31 years.
The Eubanks and Farmer families had no say in his return, either.
According to documents provided by the DOC, Craig asked to come back to Florida in 2005, saying he had an ailing 83-year-old father in Live Oak and a brother, Leonard, who had developed Parkinson's disease.
Though Craig's father died last year and his younger brother, John, a dentist, is serving a jail sentence in Suwannee County for prescription fraud, he has several other siblings in Florida, including three sisters in Orlando.
Craig's wife recently divorced him, sold her home in California and moved to New York state, but she thinks he deserves to be in Florida near relatives.
She said she can't understand the Farmer family's anger.
"What difference does it make if he's in California, Florida or Timbuktu? He's in prison and he'll never get out," Jeri Lynne Craig said in a phone interview.
Farmer, 29, and Eubanks, 32, were killed after they became suspicious that Craig and Robert Schmidt, now 46, were involved in a cattle-rustling scheme. They were shot in the back of the head and dumped into the deep and murky waters of Wall Sink with cement blocks tied to them.
Toby Farmer, who was 3 when his father was killed, said Craig should not only stay in a Florida prison, but die there, too.
"It might be Old Testament, an-eye-for-an-eye kind of thing, but they should both die [in prison]," he said of the two killers. "It's just the way I feel. They've both gotten far more [consideration] than they deserve."
Stephen Hudak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-742-5930.