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Fugitive ‘lost’ at sea, found in Clark

Florida man being sent back to face sex crime charges

Hours before he was due in a Florida court to answer to sex crime charges, something either awful, or awfully convenient, happened to David Leon Lashley: the 50-year-old man went missing at sea.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for Lashley, local and federal law enforcement officials found him safe and sound in the Clark area and took him into custody on Monday. It was three-and-half-months and more than 2,200 miles removed from where Lashley had supposedly been lost.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said the U.S. Marshals Service contacted his office a couple weeks ago, as they had information Lashley was in the area under the alias of “Wesley Byrd.” Steward wasn’t sure exactly how law enforcement caught on to Lashley, but believed his use of social media played a role.

“When these guys go on the run, sometimes they’re pretty ingenious, but it doesn’t sound like this guy was too savvy,” Steward said.

The sheriff’s office spent some time checking the Clark area for Lashley, who had been working at the Sunlight Ranch as Byrd. Ranch personnel “had no idea, obviously,” of Byrd’s true identity, Steward said.

Ultimately, U.S. Marshals brought in equipment to pinpoint and positively identify Lashley, Steward said. He said the Marhals Service had asked him not to disclose the technology used, but generally described it as “the newest, latest (and) greatest.”

A task force made up of about six U.S. Marshals, two U.S. Coast Guard’s Investigative Service and two sheriff’s deputies took Lashley into custody without incident on Monday night.

Now he’ll return to Florida to face the four felony charges he failed to answer to in February, plus any charges stemming from his flight from law enforcement. The fact that two firearms were found in Lashley’s motorhome could be charged as a federal crime, Steward said.

Lashley originally was wanted on allegations that he traveled to Gainesville, Fla., in early 2012 with the intent of having sex with an 11-year-old girl. He was arrested on arrival and learned that in reality, the girl and her mother were the figment of law enforcement’s imagination.

Lashley was one of more than 20 men caught in “Operation Tail Feather,” a sting in which officers went undercover on dating websites and tried to reel in individuals looking for sexual relationships with minors.

Lashley is alleged to have sent obscene messages to an officer posing as the mother of an 11-year-old girl, the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun reported. The fake mom told Lashley she wanted someone to teach her daughter about sex, the Sun reported, and Lashley agreed to meet her. He later told the Sun he’d been entrapped — lured into doing something he wouldn’t have otherwise done. Lashley told the newspaper he believed the woman had just wanted someone to talk to her daughter about sex, but the police arrest report “includes excerpts of explicit exchanges over what (Lashley) wanted to do with the 11-year-old girl,” the Sun reported.

Lashley was due in Alachua County’s Circuit Court for a change of plea hearing in the case at 9 a.m. on Feb. 7.

At 9:35 a.m., Lashley’s son called the Coast Guard to report Lashley as overdue from a boating excursion.

According to the son’s report to the Coast Guard, the family had received a text message from Lashley at 3:30 a.m. saying his deck boat was disabled in the Gulf of Mexico, about 15 miles from Cedar Key, Fla.

Four boat crews and a surveillance airplane were dispatched to search for Lashley. The Coast Guard also sent a news release seeking information on Lashley’s whereabouts.

The searchers — which included personnel with the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — found nothing after a 10-hour effort, said Petty Officer 1st Class Crystalynn Kneen, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“We didn’t have anything to go on at that point, so we suspended the search,” Kneen said.

She declined to speak about the ongoing investigation into the distress call, but Steward said it’s his understanding the Coast Guard believes it was a hoax and intends to seek criminal charges.

Lashley put up no fight about being returned to the Sunshine State.

On Tuesday, Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters explained the defenses Lashley could mount to his extradition: he could say he wasn’t David Leon Lashley, he could say he wasn’t a fugitive, he could say he wasn’t charged with any crimes or he could say the state of Florida’s extradition documents weren’t in order. The judge then asked Lashley if he wanted to agree to being extradited to Florida.

“I guess so,” said Lashley, offering that, “It doesn’t matter what I do.”

Lashley’s not the first Florida fugitive to try holing up at a Clark ranch under a fake name. In 1996, local and federal law enforcement officials caught Stewart Allen Bost — then wanted for smuggling at least 3,000 kilograms of cocaine into Florida — living as Allen Bost Stewart on his Beartooth Ranch.

“As far as faking their death, that’s a new one for me,” Steward said. “Seems like every time you turn around there’s a new one for me, but certainly that’s a different one.”

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