Fraud kingpin charged with escape attempt

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Ronnie Duke, the stripper-employing mortgage-fraud kingpin and serial escape artist, allegedly hatched a secret plan to break out of the Monroe County jail weeks after being caught by federal fugitive hunters earlier this year.

Federal court records and interviews illustrate the latest in a string of escape attempts by a six-time felon whose greed and flights from justice have fascinated the public and frustrated law enforcement officials.

In his latest attempt, the 47-year-old Fenton man allegedly chipped away at mortar inside his cinder block jail cell and tried hiding his progress by stuffing the hole with mixture of wet toilet paper, toothpaste and chocolate cookies. He got as far as the wall's steel reinforcing barsbefore jailers caught him in May.

Duke was in federal court in Detroit Tuesday on charges stemming from the attempted escape — charges that along with a separate criminal case threaten to stack decades on top of a 13-year sentence for the former head of one of the country's largest mortgage fraud rings.

One of Duke's mortgage fraud victims, Northville Township resident Sandra Fatt, wasn't happy about the 13-year sentence. She wasn't happy Duke was sent to the Monroe County Jail in February following an eight-month manhunt triggered by his failure to report to a West Virginia prison last year to serve the mortgage fraud sentence.

"I mean, how ridiculous can this possibly be?" Fatt said Tuesday.

The attempted Monroe County Jail escape is intertwined with two other crimes Duke allegedly committed after he was convicted in the mortgage fraud case.

In the mortgage case, Duke hired former strippers to process loans and used fake documents to secure hundreds of loans on houses throughout Metro Detroit from 2003-07. The scheme led to nearly $95 million in losses and bankrolled a lavish lifestyle for Duke and his co-conspirators.

Duke and others spent the cash on luxury vacations, boats, cars and a nightclub. He blew $50,000 fixing up a 1967 Dodge Charger so it resembled the General Lee from the TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard."

He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 13 years in prison and released on a $20,000 unsecured bond with the promise he would surrender at a West Virginia prison in June 2013.

Instead, he disappeared.

It wasn't the first time.

He was sent to prison in 1989 for receiving stolen property and later, briefly, escaped from an Upper Peninsula prison before being freed in 1993.

After failing to surrender in June 2013, Duke dodged the U.S. Marshals Service for more than eight months.

The manhunt ended in Saline on Feb. 24.

That's where federal agents found him with a suicide note and an undisclosed chemical, raising questions about the high-profile felon's mental health, according to court records.

Hours after his capture, Duke was brought to federal court. During a brief break, Duke allegedly assaulted a federal prosecutor standing several feet away.

"He just suddenly bolted and assaulted her," U.S. District Court spokesman Rod Hansen told The Detroit News at the time. "It was only a matter of seconds before the marshals subdued him. It was clearly more than a shove."

After the alleged assault, Duke was driven to the Monroe County Jail, his new home for the next three months.

He soon started trying to dig his way out, according to federal court records.

Between Feb. 24 and May 8, Duke dug away at the mortar surrounding the cinder block wall near his jail cell window, according to court filings.

It is unclear how jail officials discovered Duke's escape attempt. The Monroe County Sheriff's Office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

If convicted of the attempted escape and failure to surrender last year, Duke faces up to 10 additional years in federal prison. He also could be sentenced to 20 years if convicted of assaulting the federal prosecutor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Buckley declined comment Tuesday.

Duke's alleged assault of the prosecutor led to security changes inside federal court in downtown Detroit. Now, inmates must wear handcuffs and leg chains during court appearances.

Duke was wearing both Tuesday as two deputy U.S. Marshals escorted him into U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy's courtroom.

He was dramatically thinner and unshaven; he wore a maroon Wayne County Jail uniform and glasses that appeared to be held together by duct tape.

During the brief court hearing, Duke grumbled about his lawyer, who immediately begged off the case after hearing his client's complaints.

The judge ordered a new lawyer for Duke and ruled the convicted felon competent to stand trial after reviewing results of a psychiatric exam.

"I've had extreme mood swings ... nervousness and depression," Duke said during a brief court hearing Tuesday. "But I'm not saying I'm crazy." 222-2028