MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Illinois police repeatedly arrested a man in unrelated cases before investigators realized he was a fugitive suspect in a 1996 slaying in Alabama, where he escaped from jail nearly two decades ago, authorities said Thursday.
It took years for anyone to realize construction worker Phillip Thomas, 54, of Chicago actually was jail escapee Donovan Johnson, 44, of Boligee, Alabama, said Chief Deputy Jeremy Rancher of Greene County, Alabama.
Rancher, who helped track down the man, said photos and old fingerprints were used to finally reveal the identity of Johnson, who records show served four stints in prison in Illinois while on the lam from Alabama.
Chicago police said they first arrested the man they believe was Thomas in December 1998, just months after the escape, for having a stolen car. He pleaded guilty and received probation.
In all, police said, he had seven felony arrests and four misdemeanor arrests and used five different names, including one that was very close to his actual name - Donovan Leon Johnson.
No one realized that Thomas actually was Johnson because the real Phillip Thomas never had been arrested or fingerprinted before Johnson obtained his ID, said Rancher.
"It was a matter of connecting the dots," he said.
An attorney appointed to represent Johnson did not return a message seeking comment.
A judge set Johnson's trial to begin June 26, almost 15 years to the day after his last trial date, which was canceled.
Johnson escaped from the Greene County jail in 1998 while awaiting trial in the killing of Ollie Carpenter, 29, and records show he went to prison in 2001 in Illinois. His last prison term began in 2005, records show.
Johnson was arrested last week and returned to Alabama on Tuesday. A tip led to a comparison of photos of Thomas and Johnson and then a fingerprint match, Rancher said.
Johnson is being charged with escape, and a judge approved a request to let prosecutors resume court action against him in the slaying of Carpenter, who was shot to death in 1996 in the rural county located about 90 miles southwest of Birmingham.
Another man charged in Carpenter's death pleaded guilty and already has completed a prison sentence, authorities said.
Carpenter's family told CBS affiliate WIAT Johnson's arrest brings them closer to justice.
"I feel like if he was wrong, if he had any kind of Jesus in him, he should have turned himself in," said Peggy Carpenter, Ollie Carpenter's sister-in-law. "I don't understand how he could live this long knowing he did an injustice."