Two Louisiana con men, who escaped from prison by picking their cell lock with a popsicle stick, convinced students at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, they were Hurricane Katrina refugees who needed a place to stay. The Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity opened up their doors to these “Tulane” students.
Twenty-two-year-old Zachary Arabie and 31-year-old Steven Ridge wound up in Knoxville attending fraternity parties, even dating coeds.
The duo who were serving time for forgery and armed robbery allegedly had resumed their old lives too, Ridge was arrested after trying to pass off forged $10 bills at this gas station. Arabie was picked up outside the college library. Police believe both men obtained $4,000 in Hurricane Katrina aid. Real Katrina victims in New Orleans are outraged.
On Tuesday, Dan Abrams, host, ‘The Abrams Report’ spoke with Patrick Davis is a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at the University of Tennessee who spent time with the fugitives and Sergeant Sean Hejna of the Knoxville County Police helped make both arrests.
To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the “Launch” button to the right.
DAN ABRAMS, HOST, ‘THE ABRAMS REPORT’: Patrick, let me start with you. Give us a sense of how these guys come in. I mean the first time they show up, what, they say they are actually in your fraternity but down at Tulane?
PATRICK DAVIS, KNEW KATRINA FUGITIVES: Yes, sir, they did. They came to our doorsteps posing as refugees from Hurricane Katrina and you know given the circumstances and everyone’s desire just to lend a helping hand, we took them in. And they said that they were members of our fraternity and we just decided not to ask too many questions because we didn’t want to seem rude or unwelcoming.
ABRAMS: How long did they stay? Did they stay at your fraternity house?
DAVIS: Yes, sir. They actually lived at the house for a little over a week.
ABRAMS: So that was it? It was just a period of one week?
DAVIS: Yes, sir.
ABRAMS: So in this one week they were able to start dating coeds, too?
DAVIS: Well, it’s my understanding they then moved out of the house and rented an apartment with the funds they were receiving from the Katrina aid.
ABRAMS: So then they start just coming back for parties, et cetera, to the fraternity?
DAVIS: After they left, they actually kind of distanced themselves a little bit. I found that they actually got jobs at local establishments close to the campus and apparently did become involved with people outside of the chapter.
ABRAMS: They didn’t go to class or anything, did they?
DAVIS: No, sir. It was my understanding that they were actually seeking admission into the university though. How far along in the process they actually were in you know that of applying I’m not sure.
ABRAMS: Blatant idiots. They are actually trying to get into the university. That’s a strong move. All right. Sergeant, you got these guys because, what, one of them tries to pass off a fake $10 bill at a gas station.
SGT. SEAN HEJNA, KNOXVILLE COUNTY POLICE: Basically that’s it. David Powell and I along with another investigator were on our way back, Jeff Sellers, we were on our way back from lunch one afternoon and we stopped at a local convenience store and he passed a counterfeit bill in front of Investigator Powell. Investigator Powell, of course, was in plain clothes, became very nervous, which led our questions to be a little bit deeper. He tried to run from us. He assaulted both of us.
ABRAMS: Well let me be clear. So it wasn’t that an attendant noticed that it was a fake $10 bill. One of your people saw him literally handing over the $10 bill could tell from looking at it that it was a fake?
HEJNA: No, sir. I’m sorry. The attendant actually marked the bill with a counterfeit pen and they had a discussion and Investigator Powell overheard the conversation, which heightened his suspicions.
ABRAMS: So why was no one looking for these guys if they were escapees?
HEJNA: Well, to be honest with you, we didn’t have any information at all from Louisiana that they were on the run and possibly headed up this way.
ABRAMS: Do you know why? I mean I’m not blaming you guys, but do you know why the Louisiana authorities didn’t say hey, there are two guys who picked their way out of a prison cell?
HEJNA: Well, and they may have locally down there. I think it was the understanding of the locals in the area that these guys were probably still in Louisiana. So I’m sure that they put out BOLO’s down there and probably sent out teletypes. It just didn’t make it to Tennessee.
ABRAMS: Patrick, did they seem like nice guys?
DAVIS: They actually really were. That was kind one of the most surprising things about it. They seemed to be genuinely nice guys granted, you know, we didn’t even know their true names. They gave us false aliases. They were very generous with their finances and their resources and just kind of I guess attempted to fit in as best they could and they did a pretty good job of it.
ABRAMS: You know I remember when I was in college there was a guy who faked he was part of the Rothschild family and fooled the fraternity down at Duke and almost, almost like gave them all sorts of things but eventually, you know, when you go to one of these highfaluting schools and you claim you are a Rothschild, someone says oh yes, I knew Steve Rothschild and the guy gets busted.
Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.