A rundown saloon on the outskirts of Ocala, Florida; January 26th, 1977.
A bar popular with corrections officers seems like the last place a wanted fugitive would frequent,
but Richard “Dick” Williams had his reasons.
As night fell a group of guards filed in from the nearby Lowell Prison for Women
and Dick—a convicted murderer and the most romantic man alive—made his move.
“I slid up alongside them and said, ‘Give the boys a drink—I got an expense account.’ I said, ‘Where you guys work?’ and they said they worked in the women’s prison. Before long they were telling me about shift changes and bloodhound dogs and the right roads back of the prison, and I go to the toilet and write it all down.’” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Three weeks earlier Dick, age 36, had eloped from Lake Butler Prison,
a maximum security men’s penitentiary sixty miles north of Lowell.
The seeds of his escape plan had bloomed soon after his arrival at the prison’s reception center.
While walking in the exercise yard he noticed a guard in the tower waving frantically;
upon further investigation Dick discerned the guard hadn’t been signaling him—he was wiping condensation off the glass.
Due to the Florida humidity and an incorrectly calibrated heating system
the windows of the tower were prone to fogging over on chilly days.
Opportunity was knocking and Dick Williams kicked open the door; he began to steal scraps of metal from the prison machine shop.
Eventually he had enough hardware to craft a workable pair of bolt-cutters.
“[The area surrounding Lake Butler prison] can be pretty dangerous for both the escapees and the searchers—it’s pretty dense back there and there are plenty of snakes and some gators.” Vernon Bradford, Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson, Sarasota Herald Tribune, August 7th, 1980
Finally, after months of preparation the fates provided a suitably frosty day.
Dick asked an inmate with access to the prison’s HVAC system to turn the heat all the way up—soon the sentry tower was steamy as a bathhouse.
While the guards were occupied with defogging the windows Dick and two fellow inmates crawled across the yard
and hacked through the fences with the improvised shears.
Once outside the prison the trio scattered;
after trudging 15 miles Dick fortuitously stumbled upon a car with keys in the ignition.
A man on a mission, he immediately got on the road to raise capital for the second phase of his plan:
Dick was determined to reunite with Ondina, his beloved wife of more than a decade;
two years previously both had received life sentences for first-degree murder—and now there was only one set of prison walls between them.
“I had to get my old lady out of there.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Days later he was back in his old stomping grounds, NYC, plying his trade at a Waldbaum Supermarket in Brooklyn;
Dick wasn’t doing anything so mundane as stocking shelves or bagging groceries, however—he was a stick-up man,
and knocking over grocery stores was his specialty.
In the days before credit cards supermarkets took in reams of cash,
and Dick netted $1500 from the robbery; several similar heists followed.
With a thick wad of bills from the holdups Dick rented a Ford Pinto—the 1970s version of a white steed—and traveled south to liberate his ladylove.
“It was a 1977 Pinto that would go from zero to 60 in three days, and that was my getaway car, in and out.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
After arriving back in Florida and chatting up the guards at their favorite post-workday watering hole
Dick secreted himself in the thick woodlands behind Lowell Prison,
the largest women’s penitentiary in the nation.
For eleven days he swatted mosquitos, surveilled the prison, and dreamt of his soulmate.
“I went into the woods with a pack, plenty of food, even had water purifiers. I found a nice fat tree so I could see the shift change with a pair of field glasses. I was taking bennies to stay awake. I had it figured out. The routine never varied. It was like clockwork. That prison was built to keep people in, not keep ‘em out, so I was going to go in, stick ‘em up, gag ‘em, and haul out. I also thought maybe I was going to Lowell to die.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
After a week and a half Dick decided he’d gained as much information as reconnaissance could provide.
At 5am on February 6th he emerged from the woods ready to make history and become the first man
in the annals of Florida penology to break into—after breaking out of—a maximum security correctional institution.
“I had hit the fence and cut it. It was cold. There was a full moon. I’ll never forget it. The place was so lit up the moon didn’t make any difference. I pulled out my flashlight and made like I was an officer.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
After cutting through the two fences that ringed the perimeter Dick entered the prison—surveillance had revealed the exercise yard entrance was routinely left unsecured.
Thanks to his barroom tête-à-tête with the guards he knew where the mess hall was located,
and from conversations with mutual friends he knew Ondina worked the breakfast shift.
On route to the kitchen he encountered a corrections officer;
always fast on the draw, Dick whipped out his .38 caliber pistol and cocked the trigger.
“I stick him up and scare the poor man half to death. I said, ‘Call the union hall and get yourself a new dishwasher, ‘cause you’re about to lose one.’ Then I says to him, ‘Nobody does anything stupid and nobody gets hurt.’” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Upon arriving at the mess hall Dick shackled the guard to a pipe in a utility closet and waited for Ondina to arrive.
Female inmates began to trickle in for kitchen duty but Ondina was not among them.
“Five-hundred and thirty dolls in this prison, and she ain’t here. Then one of the girls offered to go find her.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
As Dick waited for Ondina two more guards entered the kitchen—soon Dick had three correctional officers secured with their own handcuffs in his makeshift utility room prison-within-a-prison.
The twelve female inmates assigned to the breakfast shift milled about, variously bemused and befuddled.
Dick passed out some cash to ensure their cooperation.
“We stayed 45 minutes, much longer than I wanted to. I checked [the guards] into my little room as they came in. I pulled out $85 and gave it to the girls (inmates) and I had more money to see if I could bribe a guard if I had to.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Finally the couple’s separation was over;
Ondina arrived at the mess hall and after a brief embrace Dick handed her a .25 caliber revolver.
Working as a team
they packed the dozen inmate kitchen workers into the utility closet with the guards and locked the door.
Dick had successfully broken into prison; now it was time to break back out again.
“The girls were having a little party. They were hugging Ondina and telling her to have a good time. Some of them were crying. Some of them were scared—they thought I was some kind of nut.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Fast as lightening the couple fled out the unsecured door into the exercise yard and back through the holes
Dick had cut through the perimeter fences.
The getaway Pinto had been parked in a secluded spot approximately a mile away.
“We start running through the peach orchard. She’s out of condition. She said, ‘Papi, I can’t make it,’ and I said, ‘Well, don’t stop, we got to get to the car.’ So I carried her on my back some and then drug her rest of the way.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Pintos may have been unsafe at any speed,
but when the vehicle came into view the couple felt like they’d arrived at the Promised Land.
“I opened an attaché case in the car and we changed clothes. I was sweating like a Georgia mule. I put her on the floor and threw a blanket over her and we drove back past the prison and on to Jacksonville. We had it made.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
In preparation for the escape Dick had rented rooms in three separate hotels,
secreting $1000 and an array of wigs in each.
He made his final selection for a pit-stop while fleeing the prison—if he didn’t know which hotel he’d utilize
law enforcement couldn’t possibly know either, he reasoned.
Once inside their room the couple again changed outfits and wigs and left the hotel in separate taxis
en route to the airport.
In the magical days before 9/11 identification was not required to board an aircraft;
Dick and Ondina were headed home to NYC.
“I said, ‘I don’t want you to look for me ‘til we’re on the plane.’ I put her ticket in a Cosmopolitan magazine and gave her a pair of dark glasses to go with her wig and her new outfit.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Once back in the city the latter-day Bonnie and Clyde checked into a suite at the Sheraton.
There they made up for lost time.
“We had a beautiful 10 days. It was worth every bit of it. We checked into the Sheraton and sent out for ethnic food and wine. We went top drawer; I hadn’t seen her in two years.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Still flush with cash from the supermarket robberies Dick treated Ondina to a shopping spree at Saks Fifth Avenue.
The days of orange jumpsuits were behind them, or so they wanted to believe.
“I bought a half interest in that joint (Saks). We spent some time getting to know each other again. I figured she had it coming to her, all the things I bought. At least we did it right.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Although their mugshots were plastered in newspapers and post offices across the US and Central America—Ondina was originally from Honduras—the couple roamed the city, seamlessly blending into Manhattan’s hustle and bustle.
Ondina had turned 32 the week before the escape
and as a belated birthday gift Dick hosted a private party for two at what was then one of the city’s hottest boîtes,
David Wolfe’s Restaurant.
“That’s a joint that has a reputation. We went top drawer. We had a champagne dinner, a big birthday cake. I bought drinks for the entire building. She cried like a little girl.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Once they’d acquired a decent-sized nest egg
the couple intended to purchase fake passports and move to Brazil for a fresh start.
Seeking backup, Dick reestablished ties with William O’Malley, a onetime cellmate,
and on February 15th the men robbed an A&P in Fort Lee, New Jersey
netting 6K cash and $1800 in checks and food-stamps while Ondina waited in the car.
Their getaway, however, was not clean—an onlooker recorded the license plate of O’Malley’s blue station wagon.
NYPD ran the plates, obtained O’Malley’s address
and officers began to patrol the area near his residence.
After leaving New Jersey the trio hit a Pantry Pride supermarket in Long Island for 10K; they then drove toward O’Malley’s home in Canarsie.
“As we drove down the block I saw their car coming the other way. I said, ‘That’s their plate.’” Sergeant Robert Fries, NYPD, Ocala Star Banner, February 27th, 1977
When the trio exited the station wagon the police pounced and a struggle ensued.
Patrolmen cuffed the Williamses but Dick, always fast on the draw, managed to grab his weapon.
O’Malley briefly escaped but was apprehended a few blocks away.
“When we got to Billy [O’Malley’s] house the cops were there with their guns drawn. They handcuffed me. Billy started fighting with another cop. I reached in my car and pulled out my British Wembly, the ugliest gun you ever saw. [Sergeant Fries] snatched the gun and pushed me away, and the other cop shot me.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
When arrested Dick had 15K in cash and two .38 revolvers on his person;
Ondina had $1750 in her purse—the couple had been well on their way to Rio, financially if not physically.
Again wrested apart, the Williamses were briefly held in a New York jail while they fought extradition
and Dick recovered from his bullet wound;
he later accepted consecutive sentences of 7-14 years for robbery and 3-7 years for assaulting a police officer.
Then it was back to Florida to serve the remainder of their matching life sentences;
both were eventually convicted of escape and false imprisonment for corralling the guards into the Lowell Prison utility room—Dick accepted a plea agreement for 7 years and a jury tacked an additional 15 years
onto Ondina’s life sentence.
The great escape was over.
“Legal Services in New York said it was very romantic, what I did. Hell, I just couldn’t leave the ol’ girl there.” Dick Williams, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, September 28th, 1980
Journalists had a field day with the Williams saga—the United Press International dubbed the couple’s flight from justice
“a daring, movie-style caper.”
Always ready with a print-worthy quip, Dick was quoted extensively in the media and invariably took every opportunity to sing Ondina’s praises, giddy as a newlywed despite the couple’s dire circumstances and decade of matrimony.
“She’s the type of woman who builds her whole life around her man. As far as I’m concerned she is about as perfect a wife as a man could ask for. She keeps herself and her house spotless. She would run through the fires of Hell with gasoline soaked underwear for me.” Dick Williams, Ocala Star Banner, September 22nd, 1980
Now I know what you’re thinking—the devotion these two armed robbers show one another is lovely,
but coldblooded murderers aren’t deserving of my time, much less my sympathy.
Therein, however, lies the twist in the tale—although the Williamses were convicted of first degree murder they’ve never killed nor have they ever intended to kill anyone,
a fact acknowledged by all, even the district attorney who prosecuted them.
“He stood in court a few years ago a chronic loser. Richard [Dick] Williams was a holdup man crowding the middle years. He wore spectacles and a beard. His glances were reserved for Ondina, his wife.” Syndicated columnist Jim Bishop, Beaver County Times, November 17th, 1980
Miami, January 2nd, 1975.
The reason the couple traveled to Florida has been lost to history but Dick had been born in Miami—perhaps they were visiting family.
While in the Sunshine State Dick decided to make an unauthorized cash withdrawal at the local A&P.
At 8:45pm the Williamses, both armed,
confronted manager Ivan Moskowitz and assistant manager Richard Kosmer as they locked up for the evening.
Ivan Moskowitz tripped a silent alarm and Dick and Ondina were in the process of emptying the safe
when Miami’s finest barreled into the store.
A gunfight erupted, and bullets flew fast and furious;
when the shooting was over assistant manager Richard Kosmer, age 50, lay dead.
He’d been shot twice . . . . by the police.
“They stuck up a Miami supermarket. A cop walked in and took dead aim at the Williamses and shot the [assistant] manager. The law sentenced Dick and Ondina as if they had pulled the trigger.” Columnist Jim Bishop, Beaver County Times, November 17th, 1980
Under a felony theory of murder any death which occurs during the commission of a felony is homicide in the first degree even if the victim is slain by the police.
The legal reasoning behind the concept of felony murder is sound-—God knows poor Mr. Kosmer didn’t much care who fired the bullets that killed him—but I can’t help but feel sorry for Dick and Ondina.
Clearly they deserved to be jailed for the supermarket robberies
but they’ve never physically harmed anyone:
a Miami patrolman’s bad aim has cost them forty years of their lives.
“Ondina is no beauty; she is dark and plump, a woman without a smile.” Columnist and self-appointed arbiter of female attractiveness Jim Bishop, Beaver County Times, November 17th, 1980
In 1980 Dick managed to escape from the Florida State Prison at Raiford with eight other inmates
but was recaptured in a matter of days.
There’s no question where he was ultimately headed—instead of searching through swampland investigators could’ve just pulled up a chair and waited for him by Ondina’s Lowell Prison cell.
“They say there is only one woman who can ring your bell. Well, this one rang my bell.” Dick Williams, Beaver County Times, November 17th, 1980
Short of a miracle Dick and Ondina will never again live as husband and wife;
even if they manage to win parole in Florida—an unlikely occurrence in the current political climate—Dick still faces a minimum 10 year sentence in NYC and a one-way ticket to Honduras awaits Ondina upon her release,
courtesy of the INS.
I have to admit, for a couple in such wretched circumstances I’m actually a little envious of the Williamses.
Never once in my life have I had a suitor willing to don gasoline undergarments and run through the fires of Hell for me; I’ve never even dated anyone willing to wear a flammable wristwatch and wait around for me in Hell’s lobby.
My search for a partner
willing to liberate me from the penitentiary of spinsterhood seems destined to end in failure
but my Valentine’s wish for you, dear reader,
is a truelove in possession of an entirely gasoline-drenched wardrobe—after sticking with me through this ridiculous story you deserve nothing less.