Where’s the Line of Culpability? The Margo Freshwater Story


Carrying her young grandchild, Tonya McCarter walked through the parking lot of a local gym in Columbus, Ohio, on the morning of August 13, 2002. Her husband, Daryl, her adult grandson, and his fiance were all there when two men approached the group and asked Tonya for her name. She replied, “Tonya McCarter.” But one of the men, an undercover policeman, replied he had reason to believe she was a woman who had escaped prison over thirty years earlier. Daryl and his son laughed at the question; Tonya, however, remained stoic. Her past had finally caught up with her.

Tonya McCarter’s real name was Margo Freshwater. For 32 years, she had been living a lie, unbeknownst to her friends and family. She was a convicted murderer who had escaped a Tennessee prison after serving only eighteen months of a 99-year sentence.

Margo Freshwater’s life, from naive teenager to escaped inmate to fugitive mother and grandmother, had come full circle.

In the fall of 1966, 18-year-old Margo Freshwater’s world was crumbling. A native of Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, she had dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant. After being dumped by her boyfriend, the penniless Margo gave her son up for adoption and, shortly after that, attempted suicide.

Margo soon had another boyfriend, Al Schlereth, but he had his problems. After several minor brushes with the law, he was arrested for armed robbery in Memphis, Tennessee.

Desperate to free her new beau, Margo traveled to Memphis, where she sought the help of attorney Glenn Nash.

Margo had no money to pay Nash and couldn’t even afford a place to stay. Although he was also broke, Nash agreed to take the case pro-bono and put Freshwater up at a local boarding house.

Glenn Nash had once been a respected attorney. Friends and colleagues described him as extremely bright, and tests would later show he had a genius-level I.Q. Nash, however, was also tormented as his alcoholism was out of control. Although he had been cleared the year before of two federal charges involving theft of money orders and treasury bonds, he was still under investigation by the Memphis Bar Association for other instances of misconduct. Paranoia had overtaken him, and he believed agents from the bar were conspiring against him. Nash’s marriage was crumbling as he descended into perpetual drunkenness, and, many believed, he was losing his grip on reality.

Had Margo Freshwater visited Glenn Nash several years earlier, all would likely have been fine. But when the attractive but troubled teen walked into the equally troubled lawyer’s office in the fall of 1966, it was a recipe for disaster. An immediate spark ignited between the two tormented souls, which soon exploded into a fire that raged out of control. The 18-year-old high school dropout and the married 41-year-old paranoid and alcoholic lawyer began an affair.

Margo’s first boyfriend had left her with an illegitimate child; her second lover was imprisoned, but the third man in Margo’s quest for love was not the charm as he would lead her imprisonment.

On December 6, 1966, Nash told Margo’s landlady the couple was going bowling; they instead went on a killing spree, striking in three states.

The first stop was the Square Deal liquor store in Memphis. After entering the store, Nash pointed a gun at the store clerk, 60-year-old Hillman Robbins, and ordered him to give him the money from the cash register, approximately $600.

Nash then ordered Margo to stay behind the cash register while he took Hillman into the back room. During that time, a customer came into the store and later told investigators that a friendly Margo waited on him and gave no indication that she was in trouble.

As Margo waited on the customer, Nash tied up Hillman with rope in the backroom. He then shot him five times in the head, using two guns, a .22 caliber and a .38 caliber.

Witnesses saw a man and a woman fleeing the liquor store and get into a white Ford Fairlane. Glenn Nash owned such a vehicle.

Whether Margo knew of Nash’s intentions to rob the liquor store and to kill the clerk is still debated, as is her culpability in the subsequent events.

Twelve days later, on December 18, a nearly identical crime occurred over 1,000 miles away at the Jackson Mini Market convenience store in Oakland Park, Florida, a part of metropolitan Fort Lauderdale.

Witnesses reported hearing gunshots and seeing a man and woman fleeing the store and getting into a white Ford Fairlane. When police arrived at the store, they found the body of 44-year-old clerk Esther Bouryea. She had been shot multiple times in the neck and had been bound with a rope just like Hillman Robbins.

Nearby, an abandoned Ford Fairlane was found along a highway shoulder. It was registered to Glenn Nash of Memphis, Tennessee. Inside, police found ropes and shell casings matching those used in the murder of Hillman Robbins. Margo was identified as Nash’s companion, and an All Points Bulletin (APB) was issued for the pair’s arrest.

On December 28, ten days later, the body of 55-year-old cab driver C.C. Suratt was found in a ditch in Mississippi. He had been shot twice in the back of the head. Shell casings matched those used in the murders of Hillman Robbins and Esther Bouyea.

Nash and Freshwater had returned home and resumed killing. Surratt is believed to have been shot after picking up the pair just across the state line in Millington, Tennessee.

After staking out bus stations throughout Tennessee and Mississippi, police spotted Nash and Freshwater at a Greenville, Mississippi station, 150 miles south of Memphis near the southeastern Arkansas border.

The couple was arrested and charged with the murders of Hillman Robbins and C.C. Suratt; only Nash was charged with the murder of Esther Bouyea.

After a psychiatric examination, however, Nash was declared insane and incompetent to stand trial. He was instead sentenced to incarceration in a mental hospital.

Despite never having fired a shot, Freshwater stood trial twice for the murder of C.C. Surratt. She claimed Nash was violent and out of control, believing all three victims were members of the bar association who were “out to get him.” She insisted she was fearful of Nash and participated in the crimes out of fear for her own life.

Both trials resulted in hung juries, and mistrials were declared. The state declined to try her a third time for the murder of C.C. Surratt.

Three years later, in 1969, Margo was tried for the murder of the first victim, Hillman Robbins. Nash was still deemed insane and would not stand trial in the courtroom where he had tried several cases before his descent into madness.

Freshwater again claimed that Nash was holding her prisoner, and she was terrified of him. She testified she had no idea he planned to kill Hillman Robbins when they robbed the liquor store in Memphis and that Nash forced her to participate in the subsequent robbery and murders of Esther Bouyea C.C. Surratt.

Freshwater, however, was fresh out of luck with the Memphis jury. They did not believe her claims of captivity and, although she had not pulled the trigger, found her guilty of the murder of Hillman Robbins. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

The state of Florida sought to charge Nash, alone, for the murder of Esther Bouyea, but the insanity ruling prevented them from doing so. Freshwater was never charged in connection with her murder.

Freshwater was incarcerated at the Tennessee State Prison for Women in Nashville. After serving only 18 months of her 99-year sentence, she took it upon herself to make a fresh start.

On October 4, 1970, she and several other inmates were being escorted by an unarmed guard outside the prison. Freshwater and another inmate, Faye Fairchild, scaled the prison’s barbed-wire fence and made a run for freedom. Both women were young and fit; Margo had run track in high school. In contrast, the guard was older and not in good shape. The women quickly ran out of his view and hitched a ride to freedom.

The women made their way to Baltimore, Maryland, where Fairchild had a family. After laying low for several weeks, they were seen on the street saying goodbye to each other.

Fairchild was apprehended; several sources say she was captured two years later in Chicago, but another says it was only a couple of days after being last seen in Baltimore. Yet another source says she stayed at large for over 20 years, not being captured until the early 1990s.

Margo Freshwater stayed off the radar for over three decades.

Authorities eventually came to believe Freshwater was using the names “Tonya” and “Tanya.” In 2002, investigators used police computer databases to check nationwide for anyone named “Tonya” or “Tanya” with Freshwater’s birth date of June 4, 1948.

They found that a woman named Tonya McCarter had the same date of birth. What caught investigators’ eyes was that the woman lived in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, where Margo Freshwater had been born and lived before her life of crime. Employment records showed the woman had not worked from 1966-70, the same time Margo Freshwater was jailed and then imprisoned.

When investigators obtained a copy of Tonya McCartor’s driver’s license, they were astounded by the similarities between the woman and an old photo of a young Margo Freshwater.

Tonya McCarter was arrested as she was leaving the Columbus health club on May 19, 2002. Fingerprints confirmed she was Margo Freshwater.

With her true identity uncovered, Freshwater revealed the details of her three-plus decades as a fugitive. She had avoided detection by not resuming her criminal career and by living a simple life.

Amazingly, Margo Freshwater lived many years undetected in the town where she had grown up.

After escaping prison, Freshwater told investigators she and Fairchild hitched a ride with a trucker to Baltimore. From there, Fairchild took a train to Chicago; Freshwater went to Ashland, Ohio, 80 miles southwest of Columbus. She obtained a driver’s license and social security number under the name Tonya Myers. She found work as a waitress and lived at a boarding house.

Freshwater soon gave birth to a son. She said she was pregnant when she escaped from prison but refused to divulge the father; he is believed to have been a prison guard. She had been imprisoned for 18 months, so Nash could not be the father.

Freshwater began dating Phillip Zimmerman, a man she had met at the Ashland boarding house. She told him she had been raped in a juvenile jail while serving time for petty theft. Although they were never married, Freshwater and Zimmerman raised her son and had a daughter together before parting ways after seven years.

Freshwater then married and had a son with Joseph Hudkins, a railroad worker from Columbus. After he died in 1988, Freshwater, under the name Tonya Hudkins, began working as an administrative assistant for MetLife Insurance. Through her job, she came in contact with many people in her hometown, but she never “met” anyone who recognized her.

Freshwater had cut off all contact with her family. She said she had encountered an aunt and a high school classmate while in public, but neither recognized her.

Freshwater met Daryl McCarter, a long-haul trucker, through a telephone dating service in 1998. When they married within a few months, she quit her job with MetLife Insurance to travel the country together.

Freshwater was returned to the Tennessee State Prison for women, the same prison she had escaped from 31 1/2 years earlier to serve her 99-year sentence. After having served nine years, however, Freshwater’s conviction for the murder of Hillman Robbins was overturned.

Johnny Box, a cellmate of Glenn Nash, wrote a letter in 1969 to the district attorney prosecuting Freshwater. He said Nash told him that he alone had killed Hillman Robbins and confirmed Margo’s claims of being controlled. However, it was learned that the district attorney provided only one page of the letter to Freshwater’s lawyers.

A Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled the full letter should have been turned over to the defense team, and Freshwater was given a new trial. In October 2011, the court accepted Freshwater’s best interest guilty plea, allowing her to plead guilty to the murder of Hillman Robbins while maintaining her innocence.

Margo Freshwater had spent, in total, approximately 10 1/2 years in prison and was given credit for time served. She was released from prison in November 2011. Daryl McCarter took his wife back after her release from prison.

Now 71-years-old and legally named Tonya McCarter, Margo Freshwater lives in Worthington, Ohio, where she was born.

Glenn Nash was released from the mental hospital in 1983, declared fit to re-enter society. Despite efforts to try him for the murders, he was still ruled to have been insane at the time, and the courts have not allowed his prosecution.

Nash returned to his wife, to whom he was married when he had the affair with Freshwater. A 2011 article states he was living in West Memphis, Arkansas. He appears to have stayed out of further trouble.

Freshwater and Nash both say they had no contact with each other after Freshwater’s escape from prison. The 2011 article said Nash was contacted after Freshwater’s release from prison that year, but he refused to comment.

As far as I can tell, Glenn Nash is still alive at age 93-94.

The saga of Margo Freshwater has been compared to that of Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and subsequently committed several crimes in conjunction with group members. Both women claimed to have committed their crimes out of fear and manipulation.

It is interesting that Freshwater lived as a fugitive under the name “Tonya” and that Patty Hearst went by the name “Tanya” while an SLA member.

Hillman Robbins Jr., whose father was the first person killed by Nash, was a professional golfer who had a successful amateur career, highlighted by winning the 1957 U.S. Amateur. Hillman Jr. died at age 49 in 1981.


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