Had Mark DeFriest just waited a couple of months to collect his inheritance, he never would have gone to prison. Had he just behaved while he was there, he would have been released more than 30 years ago. But the man dubbed Florida's "prison Houdini" kept escaping instead of simply serving out a sentence for stealing the mechanic tools his father left him in a will. His original four-year-sentence almost turned into a life sentence—until this week. Giving DeFriest, 54, a chance to be free after 35 years in prison, Florida's parole commission voted Wednesday to move up his release date to March 2015 from 2085, when DeFriest would have been 124 years old. (Due to other sentences tied to prison offenses he committed, his ultimate release will be between next year and 2018.) A documentary filmmaker who made a film about DeFriest calls it a case of a man who got trapped in a prison system that can't handle people with mental health issues.
DeFriest's lawyer calls the case a family matter that got out of hand. After DeFriest's father died, the 19-year-old didn't wait for the will to be read before collecting the mechanic tools, using a key to get them from his father's shed, the lawyer says. His stepmother reported him to the police, and when they questioned him, he ran. It didn't help that he had a gun, though he never pulled it. Things snowballed from there, and during his first escape he climbed over razor wire and ran. In all, he had seven successful escapes in 13 attempts. He was also charged with stealing a car at gunpoint and breaking into a friend's home after one escape. Each offense added more time to his sentence, and behavior problems gave the parole commission no reason to move up his release date. Click for more on DeFriest, who was once able to memorize key patterns to duplicate a master key. (Read more escape stories.)