MOBILE, Ala.

Friends of Eddie Hill knew him for his exotic hot sauce collection, his obsession with Alabama Crimson Tide football and his success as a professional surveyor here. They knew of his love for lap dogs and Jose Cuervo tequila and his tendency to use all caps when updating his Facebook status.

What they never suspected, despite his murky past, was that the 59-year-old man they knew as “Fast Eddie” had been eluding the FBI since before he settled down in Mobile and became a fugitive hiding in plain sight for more than two decades.

Not even his common-law wife of 16 years — nor her son, a police officer — knew until recently that Edward A. Hill actually was Andy Fowler, a convict who walked away from the Jackson Barracks work-release prison in New Orleans in 1989 after serving less than half of a 16-year sentence for manslaughter in St. Tammany Parish.

“To see him out some place and to socialize with him, you’d never have any idea that there was anything like this,” said Bob Bridgers, a Mobile businessman and longtime friend. “I honestly believe that, if he had been found dead and somebody called me, that would have been easier for me to believe and understand than this.”

Fowler’s improbable flight came to an abrupt end May 16 when federal agents took him into custody after a traffic stop, pulling him over not far from the 32-foot trailer he had been renting outside town.

The alias that afforded him an idyllic adult life and a quarter-century of freedom was apparently compromised after he was arrested April 11 for driving under the influence. He was booked into the county jail, where he was fingerprinted.

Folks who have known Fowler, or “Eddie,” since he landed in Alabama remain in a collective state of disbelief. At first, they insisted the FBI had made an awful mistake, and only recently have they begun to process an unfathomable truth — that the Eddie they loved and trusted was capable of the crime for which Fowler was convicted: beating a man to death in a fight over a woman.

“I’ve never even seen him angry,” said William Cooper, a friend who works in electronics and knew Eddie for 23 years. “He was a normal, straight-up guy.”

Missing the red flags

In retrospect, Bridgers recognizes there were some red flags he either was too polite to inquire about or mistook for eccentricity. For one, Fowler dealt exclusively in cash and refused to apply for a driver’s license. His last government-issued identification was a Texas license that expired in 1989, Bridgers said.

“Eddie” insisted that his vehicle, home, cellphone — even the surveying business he started — be in his wife’s name. The couple lived together 16 years but had not legally married before splitting up several months ago.

Eddie’s upbringing and pre-Alabama days were cloaked in mystery, as off-limits in conversation as a veteran’s war experience. “All I was ever told was that he was from Amarillo, Texas, and that he was raised in an orphanage and foster homes,” said Jewel Carpenter, a longtime friend who began leasing Eddie a trailer behind her home in Semmes, Alabama, after his wife asked him to move out. “I had no reason to doubt him.”

Eddie’s former wife, who spoke to The New Orleans Advocate on the condition that her name not be published, recalled him being extremely guarded about his background. On Mother’s Day, she would ask him about trying to find his mother. “Don’t you want to see if you have any other family?” she would ask.

“He was just the type that would clam up and wouldn’t tell you,” she said.

She met Eddie in 1997 and said she didn’t ask a lot of questions, believing he had bad credit or perhaps owed a lot of back taxes. Though he slept only in short intervals, she said, he never seemed uneasy around law enforcement — including her son, who works for the Mobile Police Department. “He loves my son,” she said, “and my son loves him.”

The former wife, who has sought counseling since learning Eddie was really Fowler, said she initially was upset with her husband for refusing to apply for a driver’s license. “I guess I just believed everything he told me,” she said. “He told he was going to do it. Sixteen years later, he never did it.”

But of all the emotions she’s navigating in the wake of Fowler’s arrest, anger is not among them.

“My friends think I’m crazy, because I feel sorry for him,” she said. “I know he deceived me. I know he used me. But I know the man he is, and the man that I fell in love with, and he was a good man. I don’t know Andy Fowler. I know Eddie Hill.”

Walking away

Fowler’s 1989 escape generated little media attention. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for prisoners on work-release from the minimum-security lockup, known as the Work Training Facility/South, to walk away from a detail. As many as 10 prisoners would walk off in an average year.

But Fowler’s case stood out in the mind of Frank Jobert Jr., the former warden, because Fowler had been the last escapee from the facility — which closed its doors in 1995 — who was never accounted for. All of the others, Jobert said, were either dead or recaptured.

C. Paul Phelps, the former state corrections secretary, described the Jackson Barracks work-release program as a light at the end of the tunnel for prisoners nearing their release dates or hoping for parole.

Fowler was working with a crew of prisoners who cut grass, made building repairs and did other tasks at the Louisiana National Guard’s Camp Villere in Slidell. The team of eight to 10 inmates was supervised by one security officer and a National Guardsman, Jobert said.

Fowler had been a “model prisoner,” the former warden recalled, a clean-cut, well-groomed inmate who didn’t cause problems. In May 1989, more than five years after Fowler was convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of 48-year-old Rickey Fontenot, the state parole board decided against cutting him loose.

“He knew he was going to have to do (at least) another three years, and when somebody finds that out — and freedom is so close and yet so far away — it’s a very, very tempting situation,” Jobert said. “Nobody wants to do another day of time.”

On June 16, 1989, as Fowler’s crew prepared to head back to the prison for the evening, he was nowhere to be found. “We had heard rumors that someone picked him up,” Jobert said. “Other people said he stole a car. One inmate said another inmate killed him and buried him on the grounds over there.”

Someone Fowler had worked a detail for later claimed to have seen the escapee and told Jobert he was heading to Texas, supposedly to meet a friend. Believing he had crossed state lines, the FBI lodged a formal criminal complaint against Fowler in September 1990.

In a wanted poster, the agency listed an array of aliases Fowler could be using, including David Andreychuck, Andrew Lawson, Harvey R. Wilder, David Spencer and even “Boo.”

Fowler still has some of the tattoos mentioned on the poster, according to the woman he lived with in Alabama, but others, like the one that supposedly said “Andy,” apparently were altered or removed.

The conviction

Fowler’s legal troubles stemmed from an alcohol-fueled fight over Betty Prater, a woman he had been living with in Pearl River. Fowler came home to Crain’s Trailer Park on March 21, 1983, to find Fontenot kissing Prater inside his truck.

Fowler slapped the woman and asked Fontenot to leave. Fontenot pulled out a shotgun from inside his vehicle, prompting Prater to scream for him to put it away, according to trial testimony.

Prater testified she never saw Fontenot take the weapon out of the truck. The men began fighting, and Prater was struck as she sought to break it up.

Joe Griffin, a reserve sheriff’s deputy who lived in the trailer park, testified that he had seen two men stomping another man on the ground for about five minutes, adding that the assailants continued “viciously” kicking the victim even after he stopped breathing. Griffin claimed he decided not to intervene because he didn’t want to “blow his cover” as an undercover officer.

Fontenot, who had a blood-alcohol content of 0.35 — more than four times the level at which a driver is presumed intoxicated — was taken to the hospital with several broken ribs and later died from his injuries, which included a punctured lung and internal bleeding from a severed blood vessel.

The authorities charged Fowler and Prater’s son, Hubert Neidlinger Jr., with second-degree murder, and the men stood trial together in January 1984. Testifying in his own defense, Fowler said Fontenot had thrown the first punch, adding that he never intended to kill the man. He said Neidlinger never came out of the trailer.

The jury acquitted Neidlinger and, by an 11-1 vote, convicted Fowler of the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 16 years in state prison.

Feeling he’d been dealt an injustice, Fowler filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the state’s “star witness,” Griffin, was “so unreliable and untrustworthy that the District Attorney’s Office was forced to dismiss numerous other cases which relied upon his testimony.”

In one court filing, Martin Regan, Fowler’s appellate lawyer, alluded to Fowler’s troubled background, describing it as “one of hard work, good conduct and admirable struggle by a young man who had raised himself from an early age.” There was no evidence, the attorney argued, that Fowler was likely to commit another crime.

On the lam

It’s not clear when, exactly, Fowler made his way to Alabama. He went by the name Edward A. Hill, and friends took to calling him “Fast Eddie.”

He had no driver’s license, but the Social Security number listed in his recent DUI case appears to be associated with an Edward A. Hill who, according to a database of death records, died at age 53 in Washington, D.C., in April 1989, two months before Fowler escaped from custody. It’s unclear how Fowler assumed the identity.

Randall LeCroy said he met Fowler in 1993 when Fowler was assigned to work on a survey crew at Volkert Engineering. Seemingly everyone who knew “Eddie” in Alabama considered him highly intelligent. His former wife, whom he met in 1997, said he could “tell you off the top of his head these equations that I would have to have a calculator and two weeks to figure out.”

Bridgers, one of Fowler’s closest friends, said Eddie worked for at least three or four different companies as a surveyor. He also began his own business in his wife’s name called Contract Survey Services Inc. At the time of his arrest, he had been working for a business called Site Layout Services.

“Everybody went to him for advice when they ran into a problem,” Bridgers said. “You won’t find anybody in (the surveying business) to say a bad word about him.”

For someone the FBI warned “should be considered armed and dangerous,” friends said Eddie was completely nonviolent and never owned a weapon. At a recent benefit, he purchased several raffle tickets but gave them away when he learned the prize was a pistol, Bridgers said.

In his second life, Fowler was not shy about going out in public. He posted videos and status updates to a Facebook page created under his alias, with a public profile that includes several photographs. He spent his earnings seeking to improve his wife’s home, insisting he and his wife put a pool in the backyard so his “grandbabies” would have a place to swim.

An ‘obnoxious drunk’

A fugitive who never met a stranger, “Fast Eddie” was a gregarious presence at corner bars, where he chain-smoked and, on more than one occasion, had a shot too many of tequila. “I’d venture to say you won’t find a bartender in town who doesn’t know him,” Bridgers said.

He was considered an “obnoxious drunk,” Bridgers added, but often avoided the bottle for long stretches.

Even as he grew close to friends he traveled with to watch Alabama football games, “Eddie” adjusted slowly to family life. “You could tell he had not had a family life of any kind,” said his ex-wife. “It took him a while for him to warm up to my kids and my grandkids, but then he turned out to be so loving and caring.”

“I truly believe he didn’t have any real upbringing,” she added, “because he didn’t know how to love at first.”

She said she and Eddie split “not because of anything he did wrong but because we grew apart.”

Bridgers said he believes his friend “gave up” after his marriage ended. After he received his DUI, it was as if Eddie knew that his old life was about to catch up with him. He began to make unusual comments about going away, asking Bridgers to look after his dog if he did.

Over the past few weeks, friends have begun exploring options for helping Fowler to be released from prison as soon as possible. It’s unclear whether he is facing additional charges for his 1989 escape, and he’ll likely have to serve several more years of his manslaughter sentence.

But Bridgers said he hopes to collect hundreds of signatures and petition Gov. Bobby Jindal for clemency.

In a recent letter from prison, Fowler signed his name as both Eddie and Andy. His friends have already decided they will pressure him into legally changing his name to Eddie Hill once he’s released from prison. He doesn’t really look like an Andy, they said.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.