FUGITIVE CAUGHT IN PARAMUS Killer Is Found at Shopping Mall By David Gibson and Michael O. Allen, Record Staff Writers

Day: Sunday    Section: NEWS
Edition: All Editions.=.Sunday    Date: 01/19/1992
Page: A01    Byline: By David Gibson and Michael O. Allen, Record Staff Writers
Source: The Record    Publication: The Record
PHOTO – STEVE HOCKSTEIN / THE RECORD – Fugitive suspect Frank Vandever, center, behind uniformed Officer Kenneth Ehrenberg, leaving Paramus police station Saturday night.



The wide-ranging manhunt for a killer who fled a Connecticut prison on New Year’s Eve ended late Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of Garden State Plaza, where Paramus police arrested him in the car he allegedly had stolen.

Frank Vandever, a 37-year-old former stockbroker with a penchant for dressing as a woman, was arrested about 5:15 p.m. and was in men’s clothes, said New York State Police Lt. Arthur Hawker, who coordinated several agencies in the weeks-long search.

“Paramus police saw the car in the parking lot,” Hawker said. “They had it under surveillance when Vandever came out, and as he approached the car, he was taken into custody without incident.”

Vandever was presumed to be armed and dangerous, but police found only a small pocket knife on him; he did not resist arrest.

“He appeared very surprised,” said Paramus plainclothes Detective Joseph Ackerman, who collared Vandever with Detective Jerry May. The detectives said they neared the car with guns drawn as Vanderver got inside.

“He tried to give us a story about how it is his car and he doesn’t know why we are stopping him,” Ackerman said. “He wasn’t convincing at all,” he added.

An eyewitness who claimed to have seen Vandever earlier in the day in a Bergenfield 7-Eleven said he looked “a little scroungy and was wearing a red flannel lumberjack coat, a scruffy beard, and his hair looked uncombed.”

But police said they weren’t sure it was Vandever. He was wearing a dark blue jacket when police transferred him to the Union County Jail on Saturday night; they declined to describe what he was wearing when he was arrested.

“7-Eleven was just one of many look-alike sightings,” Hawker said. “We had numerous sightings during the day. Citizens kept calling us saying they’d seen him here and there.”

Federal marshals were examining cash the man in the lumberjack coat used to buy a money order in Bergenfield to see if they could draw a connection to Vandever.

Vandever was serving a 40-year sentence in Connecticut for murdering a client who had caught him embezzling.

Because of his escape, he now faces federal complaints as well as a host of criminal charges in three states.

The arrest was a low-key finale to an occasionally frantic and sometimes antic manhunt that led hundreds of police with helicopters and dogs from Connecticut to New York to New Jersey and back again, tracking down dozens of false leads and at least twice letting Vandever flee from right under their noses.

On Saturday morning, Vandever apparently stole the car he was found with in Paramus when he returned to the Spring Valley, N.Y., motel where he had eluded FBI agents three days earlier.

Police said Vandever stole the 1984 Dodge Omni at 8 a.m. Saturday from an EconoLodge motel on Route 59.

The fugitive had been at the motel with a fellow escapee since a few days after their New Year’s Eve flight from Somers State Prison in Connecticut, about 100 miles away. They were recognized on Thursday afternoon by a motel resident, but fled when confronted by two FBI agents who apparently moved in before sufficient backup units arrived.

Vandever hopped a fence and bolted into nearby woods; his cohort, Ronald Rutan, ran but was arrested. Rutan was serving a 19-year term for burglary.

Police continued combing the area near the motel on Friday, with reporters in tow and often with unexpected results.

A man in a tattered green coat, described as looking like Vandever’s double, was stopped in Spring Valley three times on Friday by the FBI and police before he was finally cleared of suspicion.

“It’s crazy,” the man said. “These people have no idea what they’re doing. They made me miss my bus.”

The focus shifted to Nyack, N.Y., later Friday, when a man wearing heavy makeup and carrying a fake bomb stole $10,000 from a drive-up bank teller there. Police still are not sure whether the robber was Vandever, or whether Vandever dressed as a woman during his flight.

As news of the manhunt spread on Saturday, the number of reported sightings – some legitimate, some wild goose chases – increased.

“It’s like a public phone booth in here,” a trooper at the special command center in West Nyack complained at one point. Officers on both sides of the state line followed up dozens of tips phoned in to police from Bergen, Passaic, Hudson, and Rockland counties.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Vandever was seen in Clarkstown. At 11 a.m., he was in Upper Saddle River. At noon, he was in Closter. At 2 p.m., he was in Bergenfield, getting a $70 American Express money order at a 7-Eleven store. A half-hour later in Wayne, a suspicious hitchhiker answering Vandever’s description was spotted.

“He acted just like anybody else,” said the 7-Eleven cashier, who declined to give her name. “I guess he figured nobody knew him anyway. He was dressed like a regular guy.”

Local police stopped by about 30 minutes later with photos of Vandever, whom the cashiers recognized, in part from his striking hazel-green eyes. FBI agents immediately followed, hot on the trail again.

At about 4:30 p.m., Paramus Officer Kenneth Ehrenberg, on routine patrol at Garden State Plaza, noticed the blue Omni in the shopping mall’s west parking lot. He called for backup, and waiting for Vandever, who emerged from the stores carrying no packages and got in the car.

“He returned to the car like an average person, got in the car, and at that point he was placed under arrest,” Ehrenberg said.

Vandever was convicted of killing a client, Ronald Hiiri of Stonington, Conn., who discovered that the stockbroker had been skimming his account.

Biography: FRANK VANDEVER    Graphic: YES
Length: 0025.3/0182    Notes: Late run version
ACN: 763095    Librarian: DB
Keywords: NEW JERSEY    Keywords: CONNECTICUT
Keywords: PARAMUS    Keywords: MURDER
Keywords: STOCK    Keywords: THEFT
Keywords: PRISON    Keywords: POLICE
New: No    Recent: NO
Status: 0