Minnesota Police arrest Oklahoma prison escapee

Friday, May 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KETTLE RIVER, Minn. (AP) _ Authorities arrested a man who they say escaped from an Oklahoma prison 31 years ago, moved to Washington state, drove trucks and eventually retired with his common-law wife to a mobile home in this northern Minnesota town.

Police say the man, known as Samuel Jason Banning, 77, is really John Willington Severs, 70, who was convicted of raping his stepdaughter in Oklahoma in 1968. Severs escaped from a minimum-security work farm in 1971, where he was serving a 99-year sentence.

The arrest on Wednesday afternoon stunned the woman who's been with Severs, who she knew as Banning, for 27 years. ``I had no idea,'' said Florence Uhl. ``It's hard for me to believe anything. I don't believe anything. I don't know what to think.''

But the arrest pleased his stepdaughter, Sharon Severs, who is now 49 and still lives in Oklahoma. ``That's good to hear. It's been a long time,'' she said.

She added, ``He once said he would kill me. It's good to know they finally caught him.''

In an appearance in Carlton County District Court on Thursday, Severs admitted his true identity, but he told Judge Robert Macaulay that he escaped because he wasn't guilty.

He waived his right to fight extradition and was being held in the county jail in Carlton, Minn., Thursday night.

A fugitive task force in Oklahoma, which recently had been working on the old case, was ``led to Severs,'' said Jerry Massie of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He declined further comment.

Uhl said she met Severs in Tacoma, Wash., in the mid-1970s after her first husband died in a train accident and left her with three children. Severs told her he was from Alabama, she said.

They never had children together, but Severs helped raise her children as his own, she said. They moved from Washington after 10 years and lived around rural Minnesota for the past 17 years.

Uhl said she's never known Severs to be violent, sexually abusive or even inappropriate. ``I think they got the wrong guy myself, unless he's Jekyll and Hyde,'' Uhl said.

Severs was a truck driver until 1999, when Uhl lost the first of both legs to diabetes. ``He was my caregiver,'' she said. ``He did everything for me. That's the kind of man he is.''

His willingness to help people led to his arrest.

U.S. Marshals and Carlton County deputies pretended their car had broken down outside his home. When Severs came out to help, they arrested him.

Severs initially stuck with his alias. When the officers told him they had his fingerprints on file, ``the guy dropped his head and acknowledged under his breath that that's who he was,'' Deputy Marshal Chris Connally said.