Slap on the wrist?

A woman is free after helping her fugitive boyfriend escape to Mexico — instead of donating a kidney to his son

Lea Ann Howard picked up her boyfriend on the morning of Jan. 24, 2006, supposedly headed to the hospital. Byron Perkins had 24 hours to be tested as a potential kidney donor for his ailing son, and then he was to return to jail, where he was being held on drug and robbery charges.

The couple never went to the hospital.

Photo courtesy of America’s Most Wanted: The happy couple: Lea Ann Howard and Byron Perkins embrace in this snapshot taken months before fleeing to Mexico.

Photo courtesy of America’s Most Wanted: The happy couple: Lea Ann Howard and Byron Perkins embrace in this snapshot taken months before fleeing to Mexico.

Driving a dark blue Crown Victoria stolen from Howard’s mother, they fled to Mexico, spending 15 months on the lam, working odd jobs and conning locals until they were caught.

Both were extradited to Louisville last spring, and on Monday Howard was sentenced after pleading guilty to aiding the escape of a prisoner. Meanwhile, Perkins has pleaded not guilty to escape, and is trying to retract his previous guilty plea to federal charges he faced before fleeing.

Sitting beneath the courtroom’s fluorescent lights, Howard — shoulders slouched, a baggy green prison uniform hanging on her thin frame — offered no apology.

Although facing a decade behind bars for her latest brush with the law, Howard was sentenced to time served, and now is free. It’s the second time the 38-year-old has received a lenient sentence for a serious crime: In 2002, she pleaded guilty to conspiring to solicit murder and spent less than three years in prison.

“We are certainly pleased with the outcome and are looking forward to putting this behind us,” defense attorney Alex Dathorne said after Monday’s hearing. Regarding his client’s past — particularly the murder-for-hire scheme — the lawyer declined to comment. As for the current matter: “Obviously she had deep regret. On Monday morning, if she had to do it all over again, she probably wouldn’t have.”

The U.S. attorney’s office did not respond before deadline to a request for comment, so it’s unclear whether Howard was offered a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against Perkins.

Kentucky State Police arrested Howard in 2002 after she tried to hire a hit man to murder her estranged husband. It turned out the “hit man” was a cop, and their meeting was a sting. Howard struck a deal with prosecutors in rural Taylor County and was sentenced to seven years. She was released to house arrest after serving less than three. 

That’s when she met Byron Perkins.

Police stopped the couple driving through Lebanon, Ky., on March 12, 2005, and they were arrested after an officer discovered cocaine on Howard, then found knives and marijuana on Perkins, as well as a 9-mm Hi-Point rifle and more marijuana in the trunk. They were released the next day, and within hours Perkins allegedly robbed a drug dealer at gunpoint. Police nabbed Perkins for the robbery, and he pleaded guilty.

Facing at least 25 years in prison, Perkins was in custody when he learned his 16-year-old son, Destin, was in advanced renal failure. The boy’s mother had donated a kidney, but the transplant was unsuccessful. Doctors believed Perkins might be Destin’s only chance, and the seemingly distraught father pleaded with the court to let him help his gravely ill son. 

Federal prosecutors were reluctant given the defendant’s looming sentence, but a judge granted the request due to the boy’s worsening condition. 

It’s now clear that in the days leading up to his release, Perkins was planning his getaway, as several recorded phone calls to Howard from the jail reveal. “Howard told Perkins that her vehicle had plenty of gas … and that she had a bag packed in the car,” Jennifer Fitzgerald, a U.S. marshal, explains in an affidavit. They discussed what guns she should pack, and how much insulin she needed to treat her diabetes for an extended period. They even planned to paint “just married” on the car, making it easier to cross the border into Mexico.

The day after Perkins was released, Kosair Children’s Hospital reported that he did not show up for his medical tests. Eventually, an anonymous donor gave Destin Perkins a kidney, and he’s now off dialysis.

One month after returning to the U.S. following a trip to Mexico, a couple recognized photographs of Howard and Perkins on television and called police to report they had met the pair in a fishing village near Puerto Vallarta.

After introducing themselves as Eric and Lisa, the fugitives claimed they were on vacation and had lost their wallets. Feeling sorry for them, the tourists loaned them cash.

The next day, when the tourists went to visit “Eric and Lisa” at their shack on the beach, their new friends were gone. Locals told authorities the duo skipped town without paying their rent or for any of the food or beer they put on a tab at the local market.