James Nelson Shearer's Extended Useppa 1980s Vacation

By Jim Pender

(First published in the Useppa Chronicle, Fist Quarter 2004)

From all accounts, Jim Shearer was the sort of criminal who makes a good story. He probably deserved his 30-year sentence for thievery, and yet… his escapes and recaptures are the stuff of island lore. In 1976, it took the sheriff’s deputies six weeks to find him on Cayo Costa.

Four years later, Shearer and nine other prisoners cut their way through a fence at a Florida maximum security prison. This time it only took the sheriff’s men three weeks to catch him hiding under a Cayo Costa cottage.

This brief account is intended to accompany stories in the Fort Myers News Press of August 29 and 30, 1980. I wrote it because, for a while, I involuntarily became Mr. Shearer’s landlord and host at Josepha Cottage (now known as Castaway Cottage on Dolphin Bay, the new home of Jane Parker and Fran Consentino).

The Pender family staying in Fort Myers at the time Shearer escaped could not help but notice the map of the search scene, which included Useppa Island. This incident went on for several days as the manhunt continued.

Shearer, who obviously was quite a character, would send in postcards to the News Press staff taunting the sheriff, his agents, and the trained dogs, saying things such as, “I was so close to Deputy Number such and such that I could read his badge number. His dog is named Lucky and I wanted to pull his tail.”

At one point, Gar Beckstead, Vince Formosa and the SWAT team thought they had Shearer trapped in our house. Gar and another man, both heavily armed and serious, went into the main living area and assumed Shearer was in one of the back bedrooms.

Vince was posted at the doorway and his job was to wait for their signal and turn the lights on at the proper time. When the signal was given, Vince did exactly what I had been doing for several years: he pressed the incorrect and all of the ceiling fans started up, keeping the tense scene in total darkness.

Fortunately for Shearer (and our wallpaper), he was not in residence at that particular moment.

Shearer was a perfect houseguest! He slept in our daughter’s bed, borrowed medications for various cuts and bruises and did very little damage.

Apparently he had been away long enough to be unfamiliar with frozen food. Consequently, he tried to cook things like peas and frozen pizza in the toaster.

When they finally caught him on Cayo Costa, he was wearing a grin from ear to ear and also wearing my pants. The men from the tactical unit of the Sheriff’s Department were not amused in the least.

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