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Fugitive in Freeland murder on his way back to Whidbey

The shock hasn’t worn off yet.

A suspect in a South Whidbey murder who has been hiding in Mexico for nearly seven years is expected to return to Washington state within the next few weeks.

James “Jim” Huden was arrested in Guadalajara, Mexico on Thursday. Known as the musician “Maestro Jim” to some, and to local law officials as the prime suspect in the Christmastime 2003 murder of Russel A. Douglas of Langley, people in Huden’s hometown of Punta Gorda, Fla. remember him as a personable and successful businessman.

“He was a personal friend of mine,” said Bob Carpenter, a former member of the Punta Gorda Business Alliance who is now the spokesman for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.

Carpenter said Huden had been vice president of the business alliance, a group that had hundreds of members and eventually became the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, and was expected to take over as president before he suddenly left for Washington state and never returned.

“When he left and we heard he was wanted for murder ... we’re still in shock that this could even happen,” Carpenter said.

“This is just not the Jim we know,” he said. “Every businessman in this town could tell you the same thing. They were shocked and still are.”

Huden was a hands-on guy, involved in everything, as well as a talented musician who was always volunteering his band for fundraisers and other events, Carpenter said.

“I don’t mean just one or two organizations, he was in dozens,” Carpenter said. “He wasn’t just a joiner. He made things happen.”

Huden left quite an impression in Punta Gorda, a city of roughly 17,000 on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

One story, Carpenter said, was that Huden had been a computer whiz back in Washington state and was bought out by Microsoft, then moved with his wife to Florida and built a huge house in the upscale community.

“They decided they liked sailboats and fishing,” he said, adding that the couple opened a business in downtown Punta Gorda called Computers, Inc. that had a wide variety of clients.

Huden was quite an entrepreneur, Carpenter said.

When Huden found out Carpenter had been the news director at the student radio station at Kent State University during the campus shootings in 1970, Huden saw the potential for a movie. They signed a contract, and Huden headed to California with Carpenter’s collection of tapes and other material from the infamous tragedy and shopped his story around Hollywood, with no luck.

Huden was also well-known as a musician, and his bands “Buck Naked” and the “X-hibitionists” played to enthusiastic crowds at the Holiday Inn in Punta Gorda for many years.

“They were the hottest thing in town for months, years,” Carpenter recalled. “They absolutely packed the place, all the time.”

Police say Huden, however, is responsible for the murder of Douglas, a 32-year-old father of two who was found shot dead in the front seat of his yellow 2002 Geo Tracker in a Freeland driveway the day after Christmas, 2003.

Investigators were tipped off in July 2004 that Huden was the triggerman in the killing, but he has eluded police since Hurricane Charley hit Punta Gorda that summer.

Authorities issued regular bulletins in the area in the years that followed, and the television show “America’s Most Wanted” also joined the search in July 2008, airing a segment on the killing.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he had heard a few months ago that federal agents had learned where Huden was hiding in Mexico. And then, nothing.

That changed Thursday evening. Banks was driving home when he got a text message on his phone from the U.S. Marshals Service.

“I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I looked down at it,” Banks said.

The message: Huden had been arrested in Mexico.

Banks said Monday that Huden has already been flown to Houston, and would likely be back in Washington within two weeks.

“It could even be within a week,” Banks said.

Earlier this spring, Florida police learned that Huden was hiding out in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and giving guitar lessons under the name of “Maestro Jim.”

Carpenter, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said the department’s Fugitive Apprehension Unit and other officers had been working with Washington state authorities on the case and had recently received information that Huden had a new identity and was living and working in Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Carpenter said that police had questioned Huden about the murder in mid-2004, but then came Hurricane Charley, and investigators left. Huden, too, was gone with the wind.

“They didn’t have enough on him at that time. Then the storm came up and Jim left. He must have seen the handwriting on the wall,” Carpenter said.

At the time, evidence implicating Huden was starting to pile up.

William Hill, a friend of Huden’s in Punta Gorda, called the Island County Sheriff’s Office in July 2004 and said Huden told him about the murder a few months earlier, which he said happened during Huden’s visit to Whidbey Island for the Christmas holiday.

Hill told police that Huden had said he used a .380-caliber handgun in the shooting; investigators had found a single casing of a .380-caliber round in Douglas’ vehicle.

Detectives from Island County visited Huden in Florida the following week, and he admitted visiting Whidbey and meeting with Douglas the week that he was murdered.

Police have not given a possible motive for the murder.

In court documents, detectives said Huden was visiting Whidbey with his girlfriend, Peggy Thomas, at the time of the killing.

Thomas had once worked at a hair salon owned by the victim’s wife, Brenna Douglas, called Just B’s in Langley.

The marriage between Russel and Brenna Douglas, however, was breaking up, and Russel had moved from Langley to Renton about six months before his murder.

Douglas was back on Whidbey visiting his wife and children for Christmas, and was last seen leaving his wife’s home in Langley.

Huden had told investigators he had met Douglas at his Renton apartment on Dec. 23, 2003, when Huden and his girlfriend dropped off a gift for him to give to Brenna. Huden also claimed that he and his girlfriend left Whidbey a few days before Christmas and stayed at a hotel near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, then left to return home to Nevada on Dec. 26.

But Thomas, Huden’s girlfriend, told detectives that they came back to Whidbey on Dec. 26 to drop off the key to the home where they had stayed on the island for a few days before Christmas.

She also said that Huden had borrowed her Lexus LS 400 on the day of the murder to go get some “smokes,” and when he came back, they left Whidbey again, on the noon ferry from Keystone.

Police in Dona Anna County, N.M., later recovered the murder weapon: a two-tone Bersa “Thunder” .380-caliber pistol from an acquaintance of Huden who said he had been given the gun by Huden for safekeeping after Huden came back from his Christmas trip to Washington. Tests at the state crime lab later determined it to be the weapon used in the murder.

Investigators also seized Thomas’ Lexus in 2004 and examined it for evidence.

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