Fugitive Sentenced After 42 Years Hiding in Plain Sight
(REDWOOD CITY, Calif.) — For 42 years, Ronald Bridgeforth lived under an alias and settled into a comfortable existence in Michigan, where he raised his family, earned a Master’s degree and worked as a college guidance counselor. Nobody but his wife knew he was a fugitive, living as Cole Lee Jordan, hiding since getting into a shootout with police at a San Francisco discount store 42 years ago.
His years of hiding are over. Friday a judge sentenced Bridgeworth, 67, to one year in a county jail, followed by probation for that 1968 shootout.
Bridgeforth, who will likely only serve half of his sentence, told judge Lisa Novak his actions were “misguided” and “reckless.”
“I am called to teach and I am called to heal, and I am asking you this morning to give me the opportunity to continue this work in my community,” he said in court.
Police did not catch up with Bridgeforth. His conscience did.
On Nov. 5, 1968, the 23-year-old Bridgeforth opened fire on San Francisco police after he was confronted for allegedly using a stolen credit card to buy $29 worth of clothes and toys. No one was injured.
After calling ahead on Nov. 10, 2011, Bridgeforth arrived at the Hall of Justice in Redwood City, Calif., and surrendered to police.
“He said it was the right thing to do and it’s all about family,” Bridgeforth’s attorney Paul Harris told ABC News after his client surrendered. “He wanted his sons to grow up to be the man he was today, not the young man he was on Nov. 5, 1968.”
After being confronted on that day in 1968, Bridgeforth allegedly pulled a gun on the officers and fired two bullets into a police car. Police fired back, shooting him in the foot. Bridgeforth was taken into custody.
He pleaded no contest to the shooting, but jumped bail in 1969 and went to Africa for a year, where he knew no one.
“He was 23 and scared,” Harris said. “His lawyer said he’d serve life in prison because California had indeterminate sentencing at that time, meaning he could be sentenced to something such as five years to life.”
After a year, Bridgeforth came back to the United States and assumed a new identity as Cole Lee Jordan. He settled in to life in Ann Arbor, Mich., with his wife, Diane. Bridgeforth’s two grown sons only recently learned of their father’s past.
He even severed ties with his mother to keep his identity secure.
Bridgeforth got a job working as a janitor at Washtenaw Community College in 1978, according to Janet Hawkins, spokeswoman for the school.
“Throughout his work here, he went to school and took on various jobs,” Hawkins said. She told ABC News Bridgeforth earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Wayne State University in 1986 and a masters degree in counseling from Eastern Michigan in 1993.
He was licensed by the state of Michigan as a professional counselor in 1994 and became a faculty member at Washtenaw Community College in 1998, where he worked as a student adviser until 2011.
Bridgeforth knew in coming forward that he also faced charges related to the 1971 fatal shooting of an officer. He was alleged to be the getaway driver, but he denied any involvement. Harris said his client wasn’t even in the state at the time of the incident.
The San Mateo deputy district attorney dropped those charges after Bridgeforth surrendered. Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti had asked a judge to sentence Bridgeworth to five years in prison.
He told ABC News he had hoped for probation, or at worst, a one year jail sentence.
Even though he gave up his freedom, Harris said Bridgeforth’s family is proud of him for setting things right.
“His family is by his side right now,” Harris said, adding: “[Ronald] is one of the most dignified, good people I have ever worked with.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio