HAWI, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A man accused of being on the run from authorities for more than two decades spent several years hiding in a tiny Big Island town.
According to news reports from Thailand, police detained Jim Sargent, 62, last month after discovering he entered the country in October using a tourist visa before switching to a retirement visa. He was reportedly sentenced to 15 years in a California prison in 1987 for a cocaine conviction, but he escaped three years later.
Sargent made many friends as a prominent businessman in Hawi on the Big Island, but they had no clue about his criminal past. They said he moved to Thailand in October.
"He has always been a gentleman to me and he's very popular in town," said Hawi resident Jimmy Lawrence. "He just helped out people when he could. He was a generous guy."
Lawrence said Sargent spent at least a decade in the town. According to friends, he got married and lived in a five-bedroom plantation house with his wife and two sons. They said he ran a mortgage company and bought the Kohala Village Inn as well as a restaurant called Luke's Place. He even published the Kohala Mountain News. Gale Leonardi used to work for him. She was shocked to learn about his double life.
"He provided jobs. He purchased properties and improved them, and provided affordable rent for people," said Leonardi.
Friends said Sargent championed community projects and helped people rebuild their lives after the powerful 2006 earthquake damaged their homes.
"He provided manpower and machinery to help get their homes back up and running and didn't charge for it," said Leonardi.
"I have a lot of other examples of some other very worthy community efforts in which he has been involved," said Michael Pancer, Sargent's attorney. "I've seen a great deal of evidence that Jim has led an exemplary life."
Sargent escaped from a California prison in 1990 while serving time for his arrest with 220 pounds of cocaine, according to news reports out of Thailand. Sargent's visa was reportedly revoked and police planned to hand him over to U.S. authorities. Sargent's real name is still unclear to those who knew him in Hawi. Friends said he and his wife divorced awhile ago, but she moved to Thailand with their sons to be close to him. His attorney is now collecting letters of support.
"Given that he seems to have made amends for his old ways, it's kind of hard to not try to forgive somebody who is doing good," said Leonardi.
"He's not a threat to anybody and I would hope that they would give him some leniency. I know there's a lot of people sending letters of support for him," said Lawrence.