ROCKINGHAM — In a two-week game of cat and mouse, federal fugitive John Adam Rillo always managed to stay just out of reach.
Lawmen waded through a Montgomery County pond to capture the 40-year-old meth lab suspect on Thursday afternoon. But in the days leading up to his arrest, all they could do was follow the trail of looted homes they say he left behind.
“From what I know, yes, it seemed like they were always right behind him,” Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly said.
Commanders from more than a half-dozen law enforcement agencies spoke about the 13-day manhunt during a Friday news conference at the Richmond County Judicial Center. Sheriffs and police chiefs said Rillo eluded capture by hiding out in his home turf near the Richmond-Montgomery county line.
“I think he’s pretty much a hunter, a country-style survivalist-type person,” Montgomery County Sheriff Dempsey Owens said. “This is his home neighborhood. Pretty much, it’s like he was in his own backyard playground.”
Richmond County Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. gave Rillo’s address as 2013 Cemetery Road outside the town of Candor in southern Montgomery County. Arrest warrants list a previous address on U.S. 220 North near Ellerbe in Richmond County.
“I think the majority of the time, he stayed in a common area, but he’s definitely a runner,” Owens said. “There’s no telling how many miles he covered.”
Rillo had been on the run since July 11 when a Richmond County deputy on the regional U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task force showed up at the Cemetery Road home to arrest him on a four-count federal indictment. Warrants say Rillo pulled away while the deputy was handcuffing him and ran with at least one of the metal cuffs on his wrist.
Deputies said Rillo got away when he ran through a kennel and the dogs held up the deputy giving chase. Since the escape, a coalition of area police departments and sheriff’s offices has worked with state troopers and other law enforcement officers to apprehend the fugitive.
Rillo broke into several homes and outbuildings, Montgomery sheriff’s Lt. Kelly Howell said, stealing food, personal items and an all-terrain vehicle.
“There’s going to be a lot of charges that we also will put on Mr. Rillo,” Owens said.
Howell added that the suspect could face 10 or more charges in connection with the rash of break-ins.
Authorities said residents in Richmond, Montgomery and Randolph counties were on the lookout for Rillo, and several sightings generated tips that helped deputies and police close in.
Clemmons called it “a great effort all around by all the citizens in giving us tips…to let us know where he may be.”
The sheriff thanked residents of Norman, Ellerbe and the Windblow community in northern Richmond County for providing deputies with information on Rillo’s whereabouts.
On Thursday, the N.C. Highway Patrol helicopter spotted Rillo in a pond near Sable Lane and U.S. 220 outside Candor.
“The original call from the pilot was that he saw the suspect swimming from one side of the pond to the other,” said 1st Sgt. Andreas Dietrich of the Highway Patrol station in Hamlet. “He went into the pond, one of the troopers came in after him and he swam to the other side where the sheriff’s department was waiting for him.”
“I guess he probably thought we wouldn’t go in and get him,” Owens said earlier in the news conference, “but they did. They went in the pond to apprehend him.”
Rillo faces four federal charges relating to a December meth lab bust at a Richmond County home. He also faces similar state methamphetamine charges.
Richmond deputies charged Rillo with felony breaking and entering a place of worship. A warrant alleges he forced his way into Mount Carmel Presbyterian Church on Clayton Carriker Road outside Ellerbe. Authorities said Friday that Rillo left a handcuff behind at the church building.
Rillo is also charged with misdemeanor counts of resisting a public officer and larceny. Additional charges from the home break-ins while he was on the run are pending.
Clemmons said Rillo is now in federal custody and his first appearance in U.S. District Court is scheduled for 3 p.m. Aug. 1 in Greensboro.
The sheriff credited cooperation between law enforcement agencies, assistance from local fire departments and tips from concerned residents with Rillo’s capture.
“I can say that any time that all of us can go home at the end of the shift is a good day,” Clemmons said. “The incident was brought to a close without any violence of any kind.”
Each sheriff and police chief thanked the other agencies that assisted with the manhunt.
“That’s what sheriffs do for each other,” Owens said. “We look out for each other. That’s what law enforcement does. It’s our job to serve and protect and do what’s right and keep the criminals away from the good folks.”
Agencies participating in the search include sheriff’s offices in Richmond, Montgomery and Randolph counties, police from Rockingham, Candor, Camden, Troy, Biscoe, Mount Gilead, Pineland and Asheboro, the state Highway Patrol, the N.C. Air National Guard and the state Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Corrections K-9 unit.
Volunteer firefighters from the East Rockingham, Candor and Derby departments, among others, also provided assistance.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.