Copter escapee, pilot, captured in Florida

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANTOWN, Fla. (AP) — A child molester who broke out of a treatment center by helicopter was captured along with the pilot Tuesday in a neighborhood on the grounds of a country club.

The capture came a day after the Hollywood-style daylight escape, in which a helicopter with a student pilot at the controls landed on the grounds of the treatment center and picked up 28-year-old Steven Whitsett.

The helicopter cleared a 15-foot razor-wire fence surrounding the center and crashed Monday near an orange grove about 100 yards away. Whitsett and his pilot, Clifford Burkhart, 23, ran off into the surrounding swamp, leaving behind empty gun holsters.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Jenelle Atlas said law officers Tuesday captured the two men about 3:15 p.m. in a ditch in a subdivision off Interstate 95, several miles from the treatment center. They put up little resistance, Atlas said.

They'd been seen by several grove workers on the west side of the highway 45 minutes earlier.

Atlas said she didn't know if the men were armed, or what condition they were in.

After the breakout, authorities had combed a 5-by-9-mile area of orange groves, forests and swamp in hot and muggy weather. The Martin Treatment Center is about 35 miles northwest of West Palm Beach.

``We have brush so thick it will tangle your legs, and you can't get through it,'' Atlas said. ``You've got to assume they're not prepared to survive out there.''

The escape occurred at 1 p.m. Monday after Berkhart took off in a training helicopter from a Fort Lauderdale airport.

``It is out of a Hollywood script, isn't it?'' Atlas said. ``He landed in broad daylight, and he (the inmate) ran out like in a movie. But unlike in a movie, they crashed.''

Whitsett was convicted in 1994 of child molestation and finished his prison sentence in 1999. He was being held at the treatment center while awaiting a civil trial under a law aimed at keeping dangerous sexual offenders locked up and in psychiatric treatment after their jail terms.

Berkhart had been in flight training for two months and this was only his second solo flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. He did not yet have an FAA license.

``He was obviously not a very good pilot because he dumped the helicopter when he got out of the facility,'' Sheriff Robert Crowder said.