Escape Artists

Friday, October 15, 2021


Car at Joyland Golf, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1990. Photograph by John Margolies. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In May 2020 David Staveley was charged in the District Court of Rhode Island for conspiring to commit bank fraud after he and an accomplice, David Butziger, applied for $543,959 from a Covid-19 relief initiative to cover four businesses that were either already closed or unincorporated. Three weeks later Staveley escaped home detention, sent bogus suicide notes to his family and friends, and abandoned his car and wallet near the Massachusetts coast. A two-month manhunt ensued. By the time a tip led law enforcement to apprehend Staveley in Georgia, he had used fake IDs, stolen license plates, and changed his phone numbers at least five times. On October 7, 2021, Staveley was sentenced to fifty-six months in prison, followed by five years of supervised release, reported the New York Times.

Prosecutors said Mr. Staveley had tried to “explain away” his decision to cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet by blaming Mr. Butziger. Mr. Staveley claimed, according to prosecutors, that Mr. Butziger had told him to remove the bracelet and “drive south.”

Mr. Staveley “simply seems incapable of taking full responsibility for his own choices in life,” prosecutors wrote. “No one forced him to defraud the government in the midst of a national crisis. No one forced him to stage his own suicide and abscond.”


Drying the Linen, or Moonrise at the Priory, by Maurice Denis, 1894. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift.

In 1318 the Archbishop of York wrote a letter to the dean of Beverley, demanding that he return a runaway nun named Joan of Leeds (who was rumored to be hiding in the nearby town) to St. Clement’s priory. Tired of cloistered life, Joan had allegedly faked an illness and, with the help of various accomplices, constructed a dummy with her physical traits. She then escaped the convent, where the mannequin was discovered by her fellow sisters and promptly given a sacred burial. The archbishop’s letter—the sole account of the affair—suggested that the nun was “seduced by indecency.” Nothing else is known of Joan, including how old she was. The History website points out, “Runaway nuns were rare, but not unheard of at a time when girls became nuns as early as age thirteen.”

The 1318 letter from the archbishop, William Melton, is a little vague about exactly how this all went down. He writes: “With the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, [Joan of Leeds] crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful, and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place.”

The archbishop sent his letter to a religious leader in the town of Beverley because of a rumor that Joan was spotted there. He demanded she return to her religious house, bemoaning that “she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”