ELLSWORTH, Maine – Ernie Fitch and Arnold Nash grew up together.
They met in grade school in Ellsworth and became friends. Many times during their early years, Nash would have dinner or stay overnight with the Fitch family, Fitch said.
And in the early 1970s, when Fitch became a deputy with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office and put himself on track to become a detective lieutenant, Nash was becoming a career criminal eventually convicted of murder.
But through the decades that followed, they managed to stay in touch.
“When I was in law enforcement, I was involved in chasing him through the woods when he was shooting at deputies,” said the 63-year-old Fitch, a security officer at Hancock County Unified Criminal Court. “Chased him a good many times.”
So when the 65-year-old Nash escaped prison on Sept. 13, literally by walking off the grounds of a minimum-security facility in Charleston, Fitch told Nash’s pursuers exactly what Nash ended up doing, retired Hancock County Sheriff Bill Clark said.
“When he escaped, they called me from the sheriff’s office and told me,” Fitch said. “I told everybody when they asked me, ‘Is he out to get the judge? Is he out to get the police officer?’ I told them, ‘He’s not any of that. He’s not out after anybody. He’s out to buy himself more time in the state’s prison.’”
“I said, ‘In three or four days they will find him walking on the road somewhere and he’ll give up,’” Fitch added. “‘That will be it. It will be over.’”
Nash surrendered to Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Michael Gould five days after his escape, when Gould saw him walking along Route 15 in Dover-Foxcroft, police said.
Nash had served almost all of a 27-year sentence for murder for beating to death and robbing a disabled neighbor in Sullivan in 1991, plus shorter stints for burglary and theft, according to state records.
About half Nash’s life has been in prison. But where the fictional Hatlen died by suicide, Nash simply broke out to be sentenced to more years in, Clark said.
“If he didn’t want to be apprehended, he wouldn’t have been caught walking along the road within a couple miles of the prison,” said Clark, who also chased Nash several times during his 43-year career. “He would have stolen a car. He knew how to get out of the area. He is very adept at how to escape.”
Deputies chased Nash after one burglary through 2 feet of snow. They were in winter gear. Nash was in his socks and camped in a homemade shelter. Still, it took most of the night to find him, Clark said.
Clark and Fitch might agree on what they suspect motivated Nash to escape, but they have slightly different takes on Nash as a person.
“What struck me most about him is that this was a true career criminal. This man had absolutely no moral values,” Clark said. “It did surprise me that he would be doing time for murder. I was a little surprised because he was a career burglar, a thief, and he worked harder to steal something than he did on an honest job.”
Nash, Fitch said, could be affable enough to someone he knew, but a menace to those he preyed upon. Fitch blames Nash’s troubles on a broken family. Clark sees Nash as having chosen to be what he is.
“He didn’t sour. He was a rotten kid. He was a rotten adult,” Clark said.
But both agree that Nash is dangerous and should stay in prison.
“That is a conscious decision he is making to determine how the balance of his life is going to play out,” Clark said. “It is no longer punishment. You are providing him his nursing home. You might as well do that. If you give him 10 years, he will do this again. If that is his intent, to stay in prison for the rest of his life, you might as well do it.”
Fitch and Clark admit that they, too, might be set in their ways.
Fitch is a son of the late Merritt Fitch, Hancock County’s sheriff from 1955 to 1975. He spent the first 18 years of his life living in what is now the Ellsworth Historical Society. It was once the county’s home for its sheriffs, and it had jail cells in the rear of the building.
He has a son, Erik Fitch, who works as a Hancock County dispatcher, and a son named Ernie, who is a police officer in Bucksport. Clark is a member of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners.
When he heard of Nash’s escape, Clark asked Fitch if he wanted to go out looking for Nash. Both laughed.
“I’d love to apprehend him one more time,” Clark said. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s what retirees talk about. That’s what we did best. That would have been kind of neat to do.”
“I imagined going down the road and seeing him and pulling over,” Clark added. “I wonder what he would have done if we had done that? He probably would have gotten in.”
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