Flight from his past never complete
Escaped murderer talks for first time about life in Chicago
WALPOLE -- Jacob Jameson woke up every morning for nearly 20 years and calculated how much was left of Norman A. Porter Jr., who stole cars as a teenager in Woburn, shot an employee in a Saugus clothing store at 20, and helped murder a jailer in Cambridge when he was 21. Porter had taken on the Jameson name and had become a published poet, a handyman, even a city worker and church leader in Chicago. But he never managed to vanquish Porter.
''When I was arrested last week there was about 1½ to 2 percent left," Porter said yesterday in his first interview since he was identified and arrested last week. ''I wasn't completely transformed."
Sitting in the same gray, concrete prison schoolroom where he took high school equivalency classes some 40 years ago, Porter, now 65, described a life in which he tried to stamp out the man he had been and assume the persona of a new and better man, one who would redeem the terrible things he had done.
He is incarcerated in maximum security at Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Cedar Junction, awaiting trial for his 1985 prison escape and serving the remainder of his life sentence for the 1960 killing of the clothing store clerk, John ''Jackie" Pigott. Looking frail in a dark green prison uniform, Porter spoke barely above a whisper, at times coming close to tears and other times leaning forward excitedly, as he recounted his life of the last two decades. Balding and 30 pounds lighter than he was in 1985, he described how he escaped, how he adopted a new identity, and how he lived with the memory of his crimes.
''I replayed it and said: 'What is it about my personality that I allowed that to happen? Why, God? Why did you do this to me?' " Porter said.
He decided to leave on a wintry day in December. As a guard sat polishing his gun, looking askance at him, a bus passed by outside the Norfolk Prerelease Center, and Porter told himself he had had enough of imprisonment.
''I thought, 'Maybe I should be on that . . . bus,' " he said.
He went to his cell, grabbed a change of clothes, and simply left the minimum security facility. Because he frequently tended the grounds without supervision, he walked out of the building and into the woods nearby. He dug up a plastic bag he had buried with $3,100 saved from landscaping jobs at the prison and honoraria for speeches he had been asked to give as a prison activist and journalist.
He took the next bus out of town. Unrecognized and unquestioned by authorities during a circuitous five-day journey to Chicago -- a city he chose after reading Nelson Algren's ''Chicago: City on the Make" in a prison literature class -- he spent hours sifting through his mind, dissecting himself and choosing the parts he wanted to keep and those he wanted to discard. No more stealing. He wanted to write. He wanted to inspire greatness in people. He said he was determined to live as his strict parents had wanted.
When he got to Chicago, he said, he took a room in a $35-a-week flophouse called the Olympia and picked a name from the phone book, Jacob Jameson, J.J. for short. He asked someone he met at the flophouse when his birthday was, then took it as his own. He got a public transportation pass and began exploring the city, visiting places mentioned in Algren's book.
Porter said he didn't live in fear of capture, concentrating instead on transforming himself, an act he compared with learning a foreign language.
''After a while, one starts thinking in that language, dreaming in that language, as well as speaking in that language, and the behavior becomes different," he said. ''Some languages don't allow for certain behaviors, because there aren't words for that behavior."
For Porter, or Jameson, that meant no crime. ''J.J. never stole a thing," he said.
His life of crime had started when he was 13 years old, living on Garden Street in Woburn, one of four children of a mover and a stay-at-home mother, he said. He regularly used a neighbor's car to pick up scrap lumber in the neighborhood. One day, he didn't return the car. He says now that he merely abandoned it because he couldn't operate it properly. But the neighbor called police and reported it as a theft. Porter said he was sent to a boys' detention center. His parents wouldn't bail him out because they wanted to teach him a lesson, he said.
''I shut down after that," he said yesterday. ''There was so much anger and hostility in me."
Soon after his release, he began stealing cars and committing robberies, a string of crimes that culminated on Sept. 29, 1960, when he and an accomplice burst into the Robert Hall clothing store in Saugus with a revolver and a sawed-off shotgun. They ordered everyone inside to empty their pockets and the manager to empty the safe. The state Department of Correction website, in its description of the crime, said Porter then killed Pigott, the store clerk, ''with no known provocation." Several news accounts and Porter said Pigott was shot during a struggle, in which the manager was wounded in the chest. Porter maintains he shot the manager, not Pigott. But he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the crime.
On May 14, 1961, while awaiting trial, he and another inmate named Edgar Cook broke out of a Cambridge jail. The chief jailer, David S. Robinson, was shot by Cook, and both men escaped. Porter was picked up 12 days later as he was burglarizing a market in Keene, N.H. Cook committed suicide three days after the escape.
Porter was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders. During the 24 years he served in prison before his escape, he became a model inmate, earning a high school equivalency certificate, a bachelor's degree from Boston University, and founding a prison newspaper and radio station. Governor Michael S. Dukakis commuted his life sentence for the Robinson murder in 1975 and tried unsuccessfully to commute the other sentence twice in 1978.
Porter walked out after falling into a deep depression when a third application for his release was denied by the state Advisory Board of Pardons.
''They murdered my hope," Porter said yesterday. ''Murder's not a good word. They bludgeoned my hope."
Shortly after his arrival in Chicago, another man at the flophouse hired him to help renovate a triple decker. In exchange for work on the house, Porter was allowed to sleep in one of the units.
In 1987, Porter volunteered for the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington, canvassing for votes in the city's Ukrainian Village neighborhood. Porter helped to deliver 51 percent of the vote for Washington, he said, and he was rewarded with a job. He said he worked as a counselor for troubled youths at Chicago's Department of Human Services until Washington died several months later.
Porter's account of his city job could not be confirmed with Chicago officials last night.
When people asked about his past, Porter would tell them he grew up in Maine and had two grown daughters, one a successful real estate broker on the West Coast, and the other a history professor in England with a doctorate. Porter was never married and has no children.
Yesterday, he said 90 percent of what he told friends in Chicago was true. ''I deceived them because I was forced to," he said.
During his years on the run, Porter said, he battled alcoholism and was arrested twice, once for bouncing a check and once for skipping a court date after he was ticketed for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Authorities have said he was arrested two other times, once for shoplifting and once for drunken driving, but Porter said he wasn't, suggesting rather that those arrests involved another Jacob Jameson.
Sometime around 1989, his life deteriorated. He showed up at the Third Unitarian Church on the city's West Side with rags wrapped around his feet and nowhere to go. A church member found him a place to stay, and another hired him to do odd jobs. He soon became a fixture at the church and eventually became president of the church board in the late 90s. When he was arrested last week, he was living in a church-owned apartment.
He soon began performing poems in lounges and coffee houses around the city, becoming known for his deliberate delivery and his cantankerous manner. He published his first book of poetry in 1999 and was working on his second when he was arrested. In his poems, he often referred to his parents, whom he called on the phone every week until their deaths from cancer several years ago, he said, tearing up.
When he was named poet of the month in March 2004 on Chicagopoetry.com, the website's announcement included a photo of him.
Investigators, who only a month ago discovered that Porter's prison fingerprint records matched the prints taken from a Jacob Jameson arrested in Chicago in 1993, came across the picture. With evidence that Porter was still in Chicago, authorities were able to track him down.
Porter said he is having trouble coming to terms with being in prison again, with reverting to his old language. He plans to write a book about himself, entitled, ''Citizen Norman: I stole a lilac." It will be about the struggle between crime and beauty, good and evil, he said.
''I'm not the animal they are portraying me as," he said. ''I'm a citizen now, that's what I am."
Globe correspondent Eric Ferkenhoff in Chicago contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at email@example.com.