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`CATCH ME KILLER' SPREADS `THE WORD' IN PRISONS

Published: Saturday, June 26 1993 12:00 a.m. MDT

In 1968, supercop Bob Erler made national headlines as the "Catch Me Killer" for being an investigating officer in a Florida murder for which he later would be convicted.

Within an hour before Erler went on duty one mid-August morning at the Hollywood, Fla., police department, the Broward County Sheriff's Department took an anonymous call from a desperate man saying he had killed three people. "I'm serious. Please catch me. Please," he would say on tape.The body of a 12-year-old girl shot numerous times was found dumped, and a woman with wounds was found across town. Erler was assigned to work the case.

It took lawmen a month to nab their "catch-me" man. Their suspect was Erler, who had abruptly quit as an officer and had gone home to Phoenix to spend time with his sick mother. On Sept. 15, 1968, the former Green Beret surrendered after Maricopa County lawmen had surrounded his mother's house. He was taken back to Florida to face a murder charge.

A jury convicted him of second-degree murder in 1969, and a judge sentenced him to a 991/2-year term in the Florida State Prison.

A `diabolical man'

In the 151/2 years he served time, Erler came to admit to the shootings but says he was a "diabolical man" who had become uncorked after a tour of duty in Vietnam, abuse as a child and the pressure of trying to live up to his macho image as a supercop who had a black belt in karate and was a Golden Gloves boxing champ, police academy honor graduate and a Special Forces vet.

These days almost 25 years since the murder, Erler, 48, continues to spend most of his time in prison.

While he is free on a lifetime parole, the Catch-Me Killer spends 300 days a year visiting jails with his self-designed prison ministry, International Rock Ministries based in Dallas, Texas. Accompanying him is his second wife, Debra, whom he married while on prison furlough in 1981. They live in Tucson.

Ordained by North Phoenix Baptist Church in 1980 while still a prisoner, Erler today calls himself a missionary to a captive audience, "the largest church in the world."

When he accepted Christ in April 1975, Erler turned all his energies to evangelizing others. His zeal of organizing prison Bible studies, Christian Men's Fellowships, a jailhouse Jaycees chapter and other activities gained such wide attention that he became a celebrity anew, the subject of many articles and media interviews in Florida, then in Arizona after he was transferred in 1977 to Florence.

A prisoner transformed

In time, his contacts with others in Christian prison ministries won him high marks as his case was being reviewed for parole.

He serves today as the chaplain for the International Cops for Christ. "Because I have been a police officer and they believe in my testimony so much, they brought me to New York, gave me a gold badge and made me their international chaplain," Erler said. "Last week, they called and wanted me to go to Russia to train police officers to be chaplains, but God has called me to the prisons and jails and the reform schools and death rows to share my message with my brothers and sisters."

His stormy life is told in "They Called Me the Catch-Me Killer," a 230-page book written in 1981 with John Souter. It has been translated into 28 languages, and more than 500,000 copies have been given away in prisons all over the world.

Winning souls

"So many times, I have been taken into a cell when someone is going to be executed," he said. "I have won nine death row inmates in Mississippi to the Lord on one of our missionary trips, and one of those was being executed. They know they are dying and they know where they are going and they know that they know that the blood of Christ has cleansed their lives."

Erler says he believes he has been forgiven for the murder he committed and has apologized to the Florida community where he once wore a uniform.

"I shot two people," he said. " . . . It happened at 1 o'clock in the morning in my house trailer in Dania, Fla., in an argument over $75. I remember shooting this individual, turning around, kicking out the door of the house trailer, and running through the trailer park, laughing diabolically. . . I was insane. I stumbled on the railroad tracks and rolled into a ravine."

When Erler awoke, he said he brushed himself off and went home and "put on my policeman's uniform, my weapon, badge, and hat . . . went to police headquarters."

En route he felt compelled to stop and called to confess. "When the police dispatcher answered the phone, a strange voice came out of me saying, `I just killed three people.' I never shot three people.

"Please, please, catch me before I kill again."

Erler says he believes today he would be the police chief of a major city if he hadn't self-destructed a quarter century ago.

His body carries countless scars from bullet wounds, prison brawls and cuts from concertina wire from a successful prison escape.

From prisoner to preacher

"I have no standing of my own," Erler told a Chandler congregation recently. "I deserve the death penalty. I have earned nothing, yet 2,000 years ago, Christ took my place and I accepted that."

Ten years ago next month, Erler was released from the Arizona State Prison at Florence, to which he had been transferred from Florida in 1977.

"I am a new creation," Erler told the First Christian Church of Chandler. "I had always believed in God, but I kind of thought he was an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud with a fly swatter waiting to nail me if I messed up."

With the help of a battered Gideon Bible he found in his maximum security cell, Christian testimony by people like former pro football star Roger Staubach and encouragement from a Christian prison warden, Erler says he made his rebound from the pit of self-destruction. "People have judged me, but the only one who is going to judge me is the Lord Jesus Christ," he said. " . . . He divorced me from being a half a police officer and half a convict and he made me a whole creation, born again in the spirit with the Word of God."

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