Bill Jones had a brief but eventful term as the top elected official in his small New York town.
Among other things, he was convicted of official misconduct and a gun charge, went into hiding twice to avoid arrest, spent time in jail and was ultimately stripped of his office.
Scheduled for sentencing on the gun charge in October 1997, he ran off again. This time, the vanishing act succeeded. The trail went cold and it stayed that way.
Then last month, 23 years later and 500 miles away, a police officer in southern Ohio saw an older man limping along a country road and took him to the hospital, officials said. When he could not produce a valid photo ID, the officer’s suspicions grew. More questioning revealed the man to be William L. Jones, 71, former town supervisor of Mentz, N.Y., and fugitive from justice.
Where had he been for so long? And doing what?
The picture that has emerged suggests a ragtag odyssey involving a girlfriend along for the ride, two aliases, a trailer hide-out on a farm linked to one of Ohio’s grisliest recent crimes and an existence built on selling old golf balls and other assorted junk.
His life on the run began near Columbus, where his girlfriend, Lucy Wilck, had family. She had left New York before him, and he met up with her there, said Detective Lt. Frederick Cornelius of the Cayuga County, N.Y., Sheriff’s Office.
After a short while, the couple headed south to Ohio’s Appalachian region. There, the lieutenant said, they spent several years “bopping around” as Bill and Donna Richards, hitting swap meets, yard sales and flea markets as they tried to eke out a meager existence.
But after Ms. Wilck was stopped while driving and charged with several offenses under her false name, they moved further south, to Pike County, Ohio, presumably to avoid having their true identities exposed.
There, the couple went by Bob and Lucy Eagans and lived in a trailer on a horse-, pig- and mastiff-breeding farm owned by Fredericka Wagner, whose family has wound up being more notorious than Mr. Jones ever was: Four of her relatives have been charged with murder in the 2016 slayings of eight members of one family.
Ms. Wilck made a living overseeing the farm’s kennel and helping prepare tax documents, Lieutenant Cornelius said.
Investigators spoke to Mr. Jones and Ms. Wilck and did not find a connection to the killings, according to an Ohio law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is still active. The Pike County prosecutor did not return several calls.
Fredericka Wagner, who faced a charge of lying to a grand jury in the case that was later dropped, said in a brief interview, “I don’t even know where Lucy is.” (Not far: Ms. Wilck started a mastiff-breeding business nearby last year, state records show. She did not respond to a message seeking comment.)
“Bob didn’t work here,” she added, using Mr. Jones’s alias.
Mr. Jones, a bookkeeper by trade, did not have a traditional job. He ran errands and was a fixture at two local flea markets.
At one, the 23 Southbound Flea Market in Piketon, he would show up most weekends, pay $10 to $12 to hold down two outdoor spaces and lay out a changing array of motley goods, said Abby Montgomery, the manager.
“Some days he’d have fans, and some days he’d have buckets of golf balls,” Ms. Montgomery said. “He almost always had golf balls.”
She said Mr. Jones was “honestly one of the nicest outside vendors” she dealt with, routinely seeking her out to pay his fee when she did not stop to collect it. Ms. Wilck, by contrast, was “a little grumpy,” Ms. Montgomery said.
Mr. Jones “always had wads of cash in different pockets” and sometimes dropped bills on the ground without noticing, part of a persistent confusion that made Ms. Montgomery think he might have dementia. She said the last time he was at the flea market was Dec. 13.
A week later, his days as a fugitive came to an end when an officer spotted him hobbling near the Walmart in Waverly.
Mr. Jones’s life in hiding contrasts sharply with his earlier incarnation as a lightning-rod figure in central New York who was even more divisive once he squeaked into office by 18 votes to become supervisor in Mentz, a town of 2,300 people that is about a half-hour west of Syracuse.
Lieutenant Cornelius, a newly sworn deputy in those days, recalled an early undercover assignment that involved monitoring a town board meeting on the chance that violence might erupt. He wore jeans and a camouflage jacket, and he brought his gun.
Mr. Jones, he said, was volatile and, at 6 feet 3 inches and nearly 300 pounds, physically intimidating.
“I was told to fit in and to go armed,” Lieutenant Cornelius said, adding, “He was definitely a guy that you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Mr. Jones’s career in government began to unravel after a pay dispute with some town workers. When he said he was “prepared to take the law into his own hands” at a town board meeting, a judge ordered him to surrender his pistol permit and pistols. He refused, was convicted on the gun count and freed on bail to await sentencing.
Ronald Wilson, a town board member at the time who is now mayor of Port Byron, N.Y., said in an interview that the last he had heard from Mr. Jones was a call a few days after he failed to appear for sentencing.
“He was already gone,” Mr. Wilson said.
And now he’s back.
Mr. Jones appeared on Monday in Cayuga County Court and was ordered held for what was expected to be about six weeks, officials said. His court-appointed lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
There was a straightforward reason for delaying the punishment Mr. Jones had dodged for more than two decades: Probation officials needed time, the district attorney said, to update his pre-sentencing report. It was 23 years old.