A troubled past, path
Published 9:34 pm Wednesday, November 26, 2008
BRISTOL—Keith Pfleger says he still remembers the beer on Abrey Wayne Fortner’s breath and the anger in his eyes.
It was May 29, 2005, when police said Fortner and an unknown accomplice burst into Pfleger’s mobile home in Smithfield.
Punches, kicks and screams followed, Pfleger said.
“He had a knife against my throat, and he threatened to cut my throat,” Pfleger said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t stand a chance. … Finally, I told them I was sick and I needed air outside.”
Pfleger next recalls scrambling to a neighbor’s house screaming for help, and Fortner being whisked away in a waiting minivan.
By that time, Fortner, then 27, had spent slightly more than a third of his life in prison, convicted for a gun-related crime and a string of burglaries.
He is wanted by authorities again, after a Sullivan County, Tenn., grand jury indicted him on charges of first-degree murder in the slaying of Arthur T. “Ted” Burchard Jr. of Bluff City, Tenn.
ON THE RUN
Virginia court records and police wanted posters show that Fortner has appeared on law enforcement radar since he was 15 years old.
Somehow, prison did not stop him from living a common life — he married a woman, divorced and found love again, all while incarcerated.
Freedom, however, has amounted to a fugitive flight from his native Southeast Virginia home of Chesapeake to the oceanfront tourist trap of Kill Devil Hills, N.C. From there, witnesses said, Fortner made a mad dash with a pair of preschool children in tow to escape their mother. Along the way, he racked up false aliases and worked under-the-table, temporary jobs to keep a low profile.
Police said his run led to the Bluff City, Tenn., apartment where Burchard, 41, bled to death from a slit throat Sept. 7 — this town’s first slaying in 40 to 50 years. Fortner, who had worked for Burchard, hasn’t been seen since.
Considered by police to be armed and dangerous, Fortner has been added to the 10-most-wanted fugitives list compiled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Earlier this month, his father, Carl Wayne Fortner, said he had received a recent message from his son, saying he loves him, and he is gone.
Carl Wayne Fortner also said his son didn’t kill Burchard.
“They got him in the paper that he’s armed and dangerous. He’s a man. He don’t have no knife or gun,” the elder Fortner said of his son. “When he gets mad at somebody, he don’t need no knife or no gun. He uses his fist.”
FATHER AND SON
Fortner, now 31, appears in police mug shots with a beefy face, a dark, scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair. He has traveled under the aliases Buster Fortner and Alvin Joyner, according to various wanted posters.
To Rachel Holl, an ex-girlfriend and the mother of Fortner’s two children, the mug shots capture more than a fugitive. They show a man desperate to gain the respect of his father, who also has an on-and-off prison record stretching back to 1975.
“I was basically the one that kept him straight,” Holl said, “… until he got around his dad and his family.”
At one point in his life, Fortner’s time behind bars coincided with one of his father’s incarcerations, for about six years, at different institutions. The father, now 52, entered the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton, a medium-security prison in south-central New Jersey, for a probation violation on July 19, 1995, federal records show.
Seven months later, on Feb. 16, 1996, the son entered the Virginia prison system, also for a probation violation. The Virginia Department of Corrections reports that the younger Fortner served his sentence in three separate prisons: Southampton Correctional Center in Capron; Deep Meadow Correctional Center in State Farm; and St. Brides Correctional Unit in Chesapeake.
Freedom from prison came first for the son, who was released June 30, 2003. The father’s release would have come about a month later were it not for the extra six months tacked on for an in-prison conviction for heroin possession, federal records show.
Instead, the father was released early the next year, on May 18, 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
“When his father got out, he [Abrey Wayne Fortner] made this comment to me, ‘I don’t know if I really want to meet back up with him,’ ” said Holl, who now lives in Chesapeake.
Why the son had reservations about meeting his father remains unclear. But neighbors told the Herald Courier that Carl Wayne Fortner presents an overpowering aura that emanates fear and trouble.
Those acquaintances requested anonymity, citing fear of retribution.
But father and son did unite.
As part of his post-prison probation, the younger Fortner was supposed to steer clear of trouble and regularly check in with his probation officer. Instead, in December 2004, he dropped all contact, Chesapeake police report.
Fortner and Holl moved to the Outer Banks tourist destination Kill Devil Hills, N.C., to live with his father.
Holl said she never considered that the move would make Fortner a fugitive.
“When he said to pack up and move, I just packed up and went with him,” she said.
Months later, Fortner would appear at Pfleger’s house in Smithfield.
“[The investigating officer] said if we ever get this guy, he’s never getting out of jail,” Pfleger said.
Investigating Officer Johnnie Guy, now with the Greenbelt, Md., Police Department, did not return calls for comment.
Abrey Wayne Fortner rarely discussed his criminal past, Holl said. And it’s difficult to determine if his crimes started small and evolved into larger issues. If he committed any misdemeanor crimes before his 18th birthday, that likely will remain sealed in a juvenile court.
But at 15 Abrey Wayne Fortner pleaded guilty in Chesapeake Circuit Court to felony charges — attempted malicious wounding and brandishing a firearm — in a crime that court records note happened May 23, 1993. According to Virginia law, the two felonies would have started in a juvenile court and worked up to the higher, circuit court level only if the presiding juvenile court judge found him guilty and deemed it to be a serious enough crime.
Chesapeake Police Capt. Bob Downing said the Chesapeake paper file containing the why, how and who of the crime is a relic destroyed years ago. Downing also failed to unearth the names of original case detectives, who he said likely retired years ago. And no one in the department could even guess at who might have worked the case.
Fortner’s father said Saturday that the charges stemmed from the time his son, while on a date with the daughter of a retired cop, shot at a car that was chasing them. The driver of the car was the girl’s father.
Fortner earned a 10-year prison sentence for the attempted malicious-wounding and firearm convictions. But a Chesapeake circuit judge in 1994 suspended the time on the condition that Fortner behave while on probation.
The next year police caught Fortner breaking into homes and businesses, according to Chesapeake Circuit Court records.
He pleaded guilty to four counts of breaking and entering — a move that forced him to serve the prison sentence that had been suspended in the previous case. It also meant another probation period when he left prison.
A mutual friend introduced Fortner to Holl near the tail end of his sentence. Their relationship began before his release and flourished into fatherhood soon after he gained freedom.
Before fathering children with Holl, Fortner was husband to another woman, whom he met soon after beginning his sentence. He experienced the entire marriage from behind bars.
Ex-wife Trinitee Fortner, of Norfolk said she might not recognize Fortner even if standing face to face with him.
They married when she was 19 and he was 22. They did not have children.
“I was young,” she said in a telephone interview. “I went head first into a relationship when I didn’t know anything about him. I left him before he came home.”
She last saw him three years ago, while eating at a Captain D’s restaurant in Southeast Virginia. He looked familiar at first glance, but Trinitee Fortner said she couldn’t immediately place the face. She had to look past the new hairstyle and beard to recognize her former husband of nearly two years.
“When I left, I left him forever and I left as fast as I could,” she said.
Pfleger, now 54, said there was lots of blood.
“They were hitting me so hard I was seeing stars,” he said.
Fortner and his accomplice allegedly burst through the front door screaming that Pfleger had molested his own two granddaughters. Pfleger denies the accusation, which was never reported to police, but the attack against him is outlined in Smithfield police reports.
Pfleger’s son dated and had children with Holl before she met Fortner. And the molestation accusations involved the children of Holl and Pfleger’s son, who were in their grandfather’s house that day.
As Pfleger escaped the assault by claiming a sick stomach then scrambled to a neighbor’s house, he screamed for his oldest granddaughter, then 7, to run.
She was in the living room during the attack. The youngest granddaughter, then 4, was playing with a friend several houses down the road.
Fortner and his friend left in a minivan driven by Holl, but not before snatching the oldest granddaughter from the front yard and then the youngest down the street.
Holl denies the fight.
“He [Fortner] didn’t do anything toward Keith [Pfleger],” she said. “He just got out, grabbed the kids, and got back in.”
Even so, police filed arrest warrants on charges of aggravated assault from the alleged attack, and abduction from when Pfleger said he was pulled inside from the porch.
There were no charges for taking the children, Smithfield police report, because Holl had custody of them.
The arrest and abduction warrants have yet to be served, which means Fortner has a spot on the Smithfield Police Department’s wanted-person’s list.
Holl said she last saw Fortner and their children, Abrey Wayne Fortner Jr., now 4, and Kendel CatesFortner, now 3, on May 11, 2006. It was the day she was jailed for stealing a car.
She was freed 41 days later, to return to a house vacated by her boyfriend and children.
Fortner’s parents, she said, claimed to have sent them away to start life anew without her.
“They told me they put him on a bus and put him toward Tennessee with my kids,” Holl said. She has been tracking her children since.
Earlier this month, the children were with their grandparents at a Cherokee National Forest campground.
Fortner’s mother, Deborah Fortner, said she and her husband now have custody.
Holl said she wants the children returned to her.
“I definitely don’t want my kids to be with his parents, or anybody else but me,” she said.
It could not be verified whether legal custody belongs to Fortner, his parents, or Holl.
“We’ve been trying to get a handle on that ourselves, and I haven’t seen an answer to meet my satisfaction,” said Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Warren Mays, whose office oversees Tennessee’s eastern district.
In Bluff City, Tenn., Fortner was known for slightly more than a year by the neighbors of a Bluff City Highway mobile home park as Brandon Lawson, a fairly quiet man who often played with his children, worked as a handyman and drank heavily.
“Every time he could get money to drink, he’d drink,” said one former neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Fortner.
As a personality, witnesses said, Fortner seemed unobtrusive and forgettable. Some Bluff City neighbors said he might have hoped to keep a low, off-the-police-radar profile.
Although Fortner might have left a less-than-memorable impression as a husband, police said they refuse to forget his criminal side.
“We’ve been looking for him,” said Downing, the Chesapeake Police captain.
Fortner still has family and friends in Chesapeake. Their addresses, as well as Fortner’s last home in the city, remain on the list of sites officers regularly check for any sign of him.
“We’ve been monitoring that address for some time now,” Downing said. “Nobody’s seen him in our jurisdiction for a while.”
The Bluff City neighbors who knew the younger Fortner as Brandon Lawson said they are too afraid of Fortner to discuss their relationships with him.
One former Bluff City neighbor did recall the younger Fortner leaving home one morning and saying he was going on a day-long fishing trip with his father.
That happened slightly more than a week before Burchard’s death.
The neighbor easily recalled the trip because it was the next day, Aug. 27, that he saw about six U.S. deputy marshals surround the son’s mobile home. Fortner was not home during the raid.
“I haven’t seen him since,” the neighbor said of the morning Fortner left to go fishing.
Carl Wayne Fortner said his son learned in prison how to take care of himself.
Deborah Fortner, with a few tears crossing her cheeks, said: “I didn’t raise him as my own kid, the system raised him.”
Holl wants to trek from Chesapeake to Sullivan County to see her children. The mother longs to again see her daughter’s eyes, to see how her son has grown. She wants to call them by their pet names, Little Mamma and A.J.
She fears the worst from her ex-boyfriend, though.
“He’s not going to let me have my kids back,” she said. “He’s going to keep the kids until it’s the end for him.”