Unless he absolutely cannot avoid them, John Pugh does not do windows. “Windows — they just ain’t cool,” he says. “You’re climbing through a window — I mean, how does that look? I don’t like to do that. There’s enough people and enough businesses who leave their doors open, their safes open. I don’t have to climb through windows.” Pugh also doesn’t like to be thought of as a common burglar who relies on crude force rather than intellect to get through life. He is most proud of the heists he accomplished with a good deal of forethought. The 38-year-old, who says he's spent a total of 9 years behind various jail bars on assorted theft-related charges, says he once stole several thousand dollars from a bowling alley during business hours by dressing as a janitor and easing himself into the business office. His biggest job, he claims, was an early='70s caper in which he posed as a press photographer (using a stolen Nikon), made his way into a country club in the Midwest, and made off with $26,000. But it was a lowly burglary charge that brought Pugh down. Last month, a San Diego Superior Court judge sentenced him to six years in prison on the burglary charge, and Pugh admits he entered the Coronado house through an unlocked window.
There's no question that John Pugh is different from most of the accused with whom he shared the overcrowded El Cajon Detention Facility in July. A certificate made by a sheriff's deputy that hangs in the El Cajon jail's administrative offices attests to his uniqueness — it congratulates Pugh and depicts hi as a duck in flight. Pugh was the tenth man to attempt and the first, on July 17, to succeed in escaping from the El Cajon jail since it opened in late 1983. (One man died after a knot came loose in his rope of bedsheets and he fell five stories in an August 1984 escape attempt.) "We're in a physical building," Pugh said in an August 27 interview at the downtown central jail, where he'd been housed in maximum security since he was re-arrested August 14. "I've ogtta be smarter than bricks and steel and plaster. I'm a thinking person."
If not for the overcrowded nature of the El Cajon jail, Pugh might never have made his jailbreak. But as it is, some inmates are housed in jail dayrooms, designed originally for watching TV and lounging. Bunk beds in Pugh's dayroom, painted the color of a jaundiced pumpkin, are stacked three-high. Pugh, who was housed on the seventh floor of the nine-story building, slept in a top bunk, inches away from a ceiling vent, which, he noticed one day in mid-July, was held by very loose screws. He removed the screws and tunneled through the crawl space above, eventually finding, between the seventh and eighth floors, a small window with a view to freedom.
Over the next three days, he braided strips of bedsheets into a 120-foot rope. Initially, he told his fellow inmates he was storing pruno (a fermented beverage made made by inmates from hoarded fruit and bread) in the crawl space. His true intent soon became clear, yet no one snitched. From their vantage point, deputies in a glass-enclosed command tower above the dayroom were unable to see what Pugh was doing. He says he often smoked cigarettes — which is verboten — in his bunk, undisturbed by deputies.
Using a metal brace he'd swiped from a jail water pipe, Pugh says he was able to carve out the window pane at the end of the crawl space. But his head would not fit through the window frame. "I just kind of put my head down in exasperation," says Pugh. In doing so, his skull bumped against he wall, and the would-be fugitive found new hope. "Wait a minute, this ain't concrete," he thought to himself. Digging into the outside wall with the piece of metal, he encountered panels of Styrofoam, several inches thick, then a thin coast of spray-on plaster, then the rarefied air of El Cajon.
Sheriff's Captain Ben McLaughlin, commander of the jail, confirms that Styrofoam panels, four to five inches thick, supported by metal girders, form the exterior walls of portions of the upper floors of the courthouse-jail facility. While it might seem odd to build a jail of plastic foam, McLauglin says its use in the upper reaches of tall buildings is a common way to lessen the weight of top floors.
John Pugh, of course, was elated by his discovery. "it was just such good fortune for me. Here I am working on this window for two or three hours. My fingers are all cut up. I'm just soaking wet, and there's fiberglass all over me from the insulation." But when Pugh looked out the hole he'd broken in the Styrofoam that night of July 17, shortly after the 10 p.m. head-count in the jail, he thought about what would happen if his rope broke; he almost reneged on his plan. "My stomach went up in my throat. I started to go back, and I thought, 'How could I explain coming back?'" There were all those guys in the dayroom expecting him to go for it. "I laid there on the ledge for a minute, and I thought about it ... the last thing I thought about before I went over was that I didn't want to eat breakfast there."
So over the ledge he went, after securing one end of the rope to a beam. It was really spooky, because when you braid something, it stretches. I was kind of just bouncing there, hanging over the edge. I didn't look down."
Halfway down the side of the building, Pugh says, his fingers became numb from gripping his rope; he then secured it under both armpits and continued his descent. He soon had rope burns on both arms and says he screamed in pain each time he lowered himself a few feet. "The minute my feet hit the ground, I didn't feel any pain."
He ran to the parking lot, removed his jail-issue shirt, and laid it on the pavement for his less fortunate fellows to see from jail windows above. He flashed them the power sign and took off. He says he walked and ran east for about three miles, then stole a bicycle, which had been left unlocked alongside a house. He rode to El Cajon Boulevard, where he encountered an acquaintance of his, who was with a stranger in search of rock cocaine. Pugh got them to take him to Southeast San Diego, saying he could get them some drugs. Once there, he told the two to hold his bicycle as security that he'd return. He ran off, knocking on the window of the home of a woman he knew, a woman who gave him $25 after he told her about his daring escape and his rope burns. Meanwhile, the would-be drug buyer and Pugh's acquaintance drove off, he says.
Next, he says, he turned his pants inside out, so that the jail insignia wasn't visible. "Then I rolled them up as high as I could, like culottes." He tore the sleeves off his jail T-shirt and made a bandana to wrap around his head. Eventually, he made his was to the 2900 block of Clay Avenue, where he knew the manager of a small, ramshackle house. "She's got everything going on in there," Pugh says. "Some people renting a room are selling cocaine. Some Mexicans are renting a room; they're selling heroin and stuff like that."
"Then somebody came and robbed the Mexicans.... There were a couple Mexican women in there, and they beat them up pretty bad, bloody and stuff." Friends of the Mexican women returned a short while later, he says, threw gasoline on the house, and torched it. "So I dive out a window, and I run and get away from the house." (San Diego Fire Department officials list the 4:17 a.m. blaze as arson but say they do't know who's to blame. The diminutive woman who ran the house corroborates Pugh's story and says the robbers were tenants she'd evicted.)
Next stop for Pugh was a house near 27th Street and Imperial Avenue, "one of those kind of houses where people come and go all night." By this time, he says, he'd spent most of the $25 he'd been given earlier "because everywhere you go, you gotta buy something or turn somebody on." He'd bought and split some rock cocaine with someone on an earlier pit stop that night. "But you know what?" he says, "I smoked a little bit, and I didn't even feel it, I guess because I was already so amped up from all the different things that were happening that night."
He spent the remaining hours till dawn watching people come and go at the 27th and Imperial house and says he realized, perhaps for the first time, how drugs were dictating the lives of these people. "You get taken out of an environment for a while, and then you're put back into it, and you see these things that maybe should have been obvious before," he says.
At 9 a.m., he was on the doorstep of a businessman with whom he'd fenced a bunch of jewelry, asking for and receiving money. A few days later, Pugh contends, he left for Ohio, where he knew his father was dying — cancer had spread to his esophagus. His father died, and Pugh returned to San Diego, having been gone only a week. He spent a few more weeks on the lam before being spotted August 14 at 30th and K streets, "at a house of ill repute" by a man who works for a downtown bail bond company. Pugh was quickly nabbed by San Diego police and found himself back in jail, facing a felony escape charge, which on August 29 netted him another two-year sentence on top of the original six-year sentence for burglary.
So why didn't Pugh stay in Ohio, or at least away from San Diego? "There was nothing for me there," he says of Ohio. He relished the notoriety his jailbreak gained him here. "I met this one chick," he says, who'd been in the Las Colinas Detention Facility when he escaped from the El Cajon jail. She told him the Las Colinas inmates had cheered his escape. "They talked about it all day and all night, how they fantasized about being with me. She grabbed me and hugged me and said, 'If only they could see me now, they'd flip.' I felt like El Fego Baca, some romantic hero or something." (Baca, born in 1865, was a celebrated marshal in New Mexico who, as a youth, had helped his wrongly jailed father escape from behind bars.)
"I didn't want to lose that sense of identity," admits Pugh, who claims, "I've had more guards [sheriff's deputies] shake my hand. I mean shake my hand. And they don't care who's looking!"
Pugh claims to have escaped from one jail in the Midwest several years ago by slipping across an I-beam above a recreation yard and once walked away from a work-furlough center, never to be found. He says his few weeks of freedom this summer were worth the price. "There's always the possibility it could have been worth it. You never know what's going to happen. To me, life is an adventure and this part of it. I'll never do something so heinous [while a fugitive] that I'll do 20 or 30 years or life."
And that's another thing in which Pugh takes pride. He says he's never tried to hurt anyone while committing a theft. "I detest violence," he says. "I used to box. It's okay inside the ring because there's an understanding.... You need a certain amount of machoism in your life so you can feel, 'Hey, I know where my balls are.' But as far as hurting people for money, I don't know, money doesn't justify it.... If it involves tying people up or even threatening people, I won't do it."
Pugh rattles off a handful of aliases he's used over the years and says he takes names from obituary columns, calling the bereaved family and finagling a social security number or other helpful information.
He's held jobs as an electrician and a hospital orderly, among other positions, though he hasn't found anything quite as lucrative or "with enough excitement or danger" as theft. He's also been a burglary victim. "It took me so long to get over that and feel secure again in my own home," he says. "So, I'm not going to pretend I don't know what it does to people. For that reason, yes, I belong in jail." And, he says, "If I got out tomorrow, there's no guarantee I wouldn't do it [theft] again."
The story would end here but for the fact that on Sunday morning, Pugh escaped again, this time from the central jail on C Street, downtown. Sunday evening he called a reporter. He would not disclose his whereabouts but said someone inside the jail had given him street clothes to don under his jail uniform. Pugh says he used half a hacksaw blade to cut through fencing on the jail rooftop during his routine recreation period on the roof, climbed down a rope of sheets to the sixth floor, shimmied down a pipe several flights to a landing, and entered the courthouse building through an unlocked door, where he encountered a janitor. "He was quite shocked, but he offered no opposition," said Pugh, who said he then left the building, by now having shed his jail clothes. He said he greeted a California Highway Patrolman just outside the courthouse and went on his way. He also said another inmate (a convicted murderer, as it turns out) had seen him leaving the roof and followed him, escaping as well. Pugh wouldn't say where he was headed bu joked that maybe Sheriff John Duffy ought to hire him as a security consultant. Pugh ended the conversation, saying two police officers were walking by and he'd have to be going.