FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Hiding out in Ecuador for 22 years, federal fugitive Martin James Malone didn't exactly live the good life on the lam. Rather, those who came to know him say, he lived a life of good.
Malone skipped out of South Florida just before a jury found him guilty of a federal drug charge in 1990. He forged a new life in South America — as a contractor, a "medicine man," and a person whose kindness endeared him to many.
"I believe Martin was ashamed of some of his former actions and tried to make up for the mistakes he had made," one woman, Linda Indrebo, wrote to a federal judge in South Florida.
Indrebo is one of several who have written to U.S. District Judge William Zloch, asking the judge to see the other side of Malone and show mercy when he is sentenced later this year.
Malone, now 50, evaded capture until February, when Ecuadorean police arrested and extradited him.
Even federal prosecutors accept that Malone played a very small role in the 1989 cocaine-importing conspiracy, though he could still face 20 years or more in prison on top of being punished for going on the run.
One letter writer, Ed Blizzard, called Malone the "best doctor I ever had."
"I'm 75 years old and when I was down, Mr. Martin came along with his jungle herbs and exotic oils and fixed me right up and didn't charge me a thing," wrote Blizzard, of San Jose, Ecuador. "I hear you captured him. Don't keep him too long [be]cause he's needed down here."
Letter writers Shell and Marsha Spivey told how Malone went out of his way to help a young Iraq War veteran from the United States who appeared to be suffering frompost-traumatic stress disorder. The couple said the man, who they knew only as "Josh," was attacked in a coastal town.
Thugs sprayed a chemical in the young man's face, beat him and left him lying on a local beach "with sand buried in his eyes," they wrote.
Malone got him medication for his eyes, paid a neighbor to bring him meals, and arranged for him to be driven many miles to see an ophthalmologist.
"The young man did have permanent damage but no doubt the doctor's actions saved his vision. When we got him home, Martin contacted his mother and made arrangements to get him back to the States," the Spiveys wrote.
"I know that you see many cases like Martin's. Some of them have to be worthless scoundrels with little or no hope of rehabilitation. This is certainly not the case with Martin," the couple wrote, adding that he also helped to install a computer lab in their local village.
"Martin … had a camaraderie with the indigenous people, as well as with European and Americans," wrote Indrebo, "of which I have never met anyone who didn't like him."
"What Martin did 23 years ago, I cannot excuse, but I do know at my age of 62 years, that when we are young we lack the knowledge and experiences we need to make correct choices, therefore mistakes are made which we regret later on in life," Indrebo wrote.
Customers wrote that they trusted Malone and his property management and contractor business with everything they owned. A Peace Corps volunteer wrote about how he taught her to surf. Others said he translated and helped them navigate the foreign bureaucracy and culture.
Another friend, Erika Campoverde Romero, wrote that he sheltered her family in his home when a tsunami alert forced her to evacuate nine days after giving birth by Cesarean section.
"Martin had opened his home to more than 50 people. Martin had a big heart, good intentions and he always was smiling," she wrote.
In federal court in Fort Lauderdale last week for what was supposed to be his sentencing day, Malone was still in exceptionally good spirits. Eight family members and friends showed up to see him for the first time since he fled — bittersweet as it was to see him handcuffed, shackled and in jail scrubs.
Before the judge went on the bench, his siblings gazed at him for a few minutes before quietly teasing him about the eyeglasses he now sports. Malone reminisced longingly about one relative's excellent chicken recipe as he good-naturedly described the food in the Broward jail as "terrible."
Malone didn't learn his fate that day. The complicated federal sentencing laws have changed so much since his arrest that the judge, prosecutor Dustin Davis and federal public defender Daryl Wilcox couldn't quite figure out what punishment Malone should get.
For a short time, it looked like the punishment for helping to import what may have been 11 pounds of cocaine through Miami could have dropped from 20 years to just a few months.
Malone's family were on the edges of their seats, but the prosecutor persuaded the judge to give him extra time to pore through boxes of transcripts from the months-long trial and try to find proof that Malone handled more drugs, which would stiffen the penalty.
Malone stayed calm through all the drama, and even the prosecutor smiled wryly when, as he passed by on his way back to jail, Malone pleasantly remarked: "Sorry I made