SALIDA, Calif. -- A fugitive from the FBI who led investigators to Chicago, Alaska and Canada apparently spent the last 24 years living less than 90 miles from the scene of the California robbery and murder that sent him to prison in the first place. And he might have gone undiscovered if his mother hadn't tried to reach him as she neared death in 2005.
Agents on Friday arrested William Walter Asher III, 66, outside his Salida home. Asher had been living under the name Garry Donald Webb and worked for a truck service company in Lodi.
"I've worked on these cases about 10 years," said agent Mike Rayfield. "Usually you find them somewhere else. You don't find them so close to where everything started."
The case began in 1966. Asher, then 20, and two other men robbed a bar in San Francisco. According to court records, one of Asher's accomplices shot bartender John Kammeyer and the three men beat him during a takeover-style robbery at the bar. The dying bartender could not get the safe open; the robbers got away with a little more than $400 from the cash register and money they took from customers.
According to the FBI, Asher took off to Chicago, where agents arrested him in 1967.
Along with his accomplices, Asher was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In January 1975, Asher escaped from Growlersburg Conservation Camp in El Dorado County, Calif. The FBI tracked him to Canada and Alaska. Under the name David Donald Mcfee, Asher worked as a long haul truck driver and got married. He and his wife had four children before they separated. The FBI found Asher's wife, but by that time she didn't know where he was. One of his daughters actually once called the FBI, hoping for information on where her father might be.
"He was in Canada as we suspected all that time," Rayfield said. But by 1984, Asher had settled in Salida with a woman he met.
"He was down here visiting or something, and they met each other," Rayfield said. "He just packed up and moved in."
The woman, whose name was not released, had no knowledge of Asher's past. "She said he was a nice guy," Rayfield said. "She never had any trouble with him. He treated her children well."
Neighbor Patricia Montes said Monday she didn't know Asher well, but he seemed like a good person and his family kept to itself. "It's a pretty quiet neighborhood," she said. Calls to the Lodi truck service company were not answered.
Mable Welch's desire to talk to her son before she died in 2005 ultimately led investigators to his door.
Welch died in 2005 in Connecticut. A year later, the FBI got a tip from someone outside the family that Welch had tried to get someone to help her call a "secret number" to reach Asher.
"From what we understand, most of the family members were reluctant to assist her to do that," Rayfield said.
FBI agents started analyzing phone records, eventually narrowing down two calls made to a home in Salida.
"No one just called and gave us a phone number," Rayfield said. "We had to search 10 or 15 numbers over three or four states over a couple of years. One number was a 209 number for the Modesto area. Once that one popped, it was really quick."
They found that Webb lived at the address, and compared his driver's license with the photo they had of Asher.
"We had a photo out of Canada from 1983," Rayfield said. "Aside from the guy looking much thinner, he looked the same. He had the exact same mustache."
Investigators then compared the thumbprint on Webb's driver's license with fingerprint records from Asher, and they seemed to match.
On Friday, FBI agents, Sacramento County Sheriff's deputies and a parole agent from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation set up outside the house.
"We wouldn't do anything until we saw him," Rayfield said. "He'd been on the run so long, we didn't want to spook him."
Once the man they believed was their suspect came outside, they approached him. Webb initially denied he was Asher, but admitted his identity after a few minutes, Rayfield said.
Rayfield said Asher seemingly lived a quiet, law-abiding life in Salida.
"His fingerprint records were on file," Rayfield said. "If he had gotten arrested for anything and fingerprinted, we would have discovered him that way."
(Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.)
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