Iowa resident: N.C. prison escapee who lived across the street seemed like perfect neighbor

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

The stranger who moved in across the street from Nathaniel Cunningham in Waterloo, Iowa, last summer seemed like the perfect neighbor.

An older man living alone, he kept to himself and never bothered anybody.

Cunningham, 30, noticed the newcomer avoided giving his name, but that was OK. They simply called each other “neighbor.”

On Monday, shortly after police cars pulled up to the house across the street, Cunningham learned authorities believed the man was a convicted felon who’d escaped from a North Carolina prison and been on the run for 40 years.

“I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I never would have guessed that,’ ” Cunningham said Friday in a telephone interview. “I never guessed he was a fugitive. He seemed like such a nice guy.”

Ronald Carnes, 68, was being held in the Black Hawk County Jail in Iowa under $10,000 bond, awaiting extradition to North Carolina.

Carnes was sentenced in November 1970 to the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in Huntersville for robbing the Lil General convenience store in Winston-Salem, according to court records. He was projected to be released in 1983.

But he only served three years. One evening, authorities said Carnes failed to show up at the prison roll call. For 40 years, his whereabouts remained a mystery – until Monday.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported that Carnes spent some time in Seattle before settling in Black Hawk County.

In July 2013, he obtained an Iowa car title using the alias of William Henry Cox, according to a criminal complaint. In March, he used a bogus driver’s license under another name, Louie Vance. According to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s biometric facial recognition program that helps crack down on driver’s license fraud raised suspicions about Carnes’ driver’s license.

Iowa authorities charged Carnes with committing fraudulent practices, possession of weapons by a felon and possession of a fictitious license.

On Friday, Cunningham recalled his surprise last summer when someone moved into the small brick house across from him on Sumner Street.

“I’ve been here 15 years, and I’ve never seen anybody living there,” said Cunningham, a single parent. “Somebody would come mow the grass and that’s all.”

When Cunningham walked over to say hello, he discovered an extremely slender man who reminded him of his stepfather.

But Cunningham also found a man of few words. In all their conversations, the man never mentioned his family or work or where he’d come from.

The new resident of 823 Sumner St. had no pets or visitors and didn’t play loud music. As far as Cunningham could tell, the man avoided tobacco and alcohol. But he obviously enjoyed yard work.

Cunningham also observed the neighbor loading lawnmowers and other equipment into a van and figured he was a handyman.

This quiet and peaceful guy a fugitive from justice? Cunningham still can’t believe it. He knows Carnes will have to face the consequences but still feels sympathy for his former neighbor.

“I’m probably the closest thing to a friend he has,” Cunningham said. “I may go down to the jail and wish him well.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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