See Ya Later, Litigator

Notorious jailhouse lawyer turned quick-change artist finally tastes freedom

Fifty-eight-year-old Christina Acker, also known as Frieda Sabisch, was on the lam for a week, having mysteriously escaped from a maximum-security women's unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex at Perryville on October 28. She was apprehended snoozing on a couch in the Memorial Union of Arizona State University on November 5.

At the time of her mysterious escape, Acker, who looks like a sweet old nana who bakes rhubarb pies, was serving her ninth year of a 36-year sentence for kidnaping and robbing an old woman in Phoenix. She also has been sentenced to life in prison for murdering an old lady in Colorado. The idea is, if Acker is still alive when her Arizona sentence is complete, she will be sent to Colorado to serve her life term.

Acker was the third inmate to escape this year, and the third inmate to be apprehended.

The Arizona Department of Corrections probably didn't miss Acker at all while she was gone. In fact, Acker's jailers probably secretly wished she'd stay on the lam forever.

Beyond being a cold-blooded crone, Acker is an infamous jailhouse lawyer who peppers prison officials with lawsuits -- she's filed more than 30 lawsuits against DOC since she's been locked up.

"She's been lawsuit-happy for years," says Michael Arra, DOC spokesman.

"I've got nothing to lose," she told me back in 1995, when I asked her why she filed so many lawsuits against the state. (At that point, she'd filed 23.)

She told me she preferred filing lawsuits in federal court, as opposed to state court. In all the lawsuits, her complaints are generally the same -- her constitutional rights had been violated in some way. She was wrongly imprisoned. She didn't have proper access to doctors or the law library. She wasn't allowed to have visitors.

If one lawsuit was dismissed as frivolous, she'd file another, alleging the abuse against her occurred in a different time frame.

Her lawsuits were laughable. In 1994, she sued her jailers, contending they did not provide her access to the copy machine. She submitted a lot of documents to prove her case -- documents that had been copied on the prison copy machine.

Nevertheless, Acker's lawsuits had to be answered by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The lawyers always begged the judges to throw the lawsuits out because they were frivolous.

Most judges complied.

Or else Acker withdrew one lawsuit to file another.

By law, prisoners who file frivolous lawsuits are obligated to pay court costs, which are garnisheed from their inmate accounts. But Acker never kept any money in her account and claimed to be destitute.

She vowed she'd file lawsuits against the state until she got out of prison.

"No one is going to stop me," she told me.


As far as I can tell, Acker didn't sue a soul during her week of freedom, although, who knows, she might have stopped in Tempe with the intention of visiting the ASU law library.

Acker had figured out an ingenious escape. She didn't cut a fence. She didn't jump a fence. She didn't shoot her way out. It appears she simply walked out the front door.

And I bet she isn't telling prison officials how she did it.

However, she did tell a friend, according to a DOC report. She walked out the front door dressed in a hand-sewn white lab coat.

Tucked away in her prison cell, Acker has a lot of time to ponder her legal issues and savor her week of freedom. I'm sure Acker secretly thanks DOC for initiating a new sartorial policy that may have helped her walk out the front door of the maximum-security prison.

About a month ago, DOC ordered all inmates to turn in their blue prison shirts and jeans and wear the brand new DOC "Bright Orange Ensemble": bright orange tee shirts, bright orange jackets and bright orange khakis with large "DOC "stencils down the baggy pant legs.

The idea behind the groovy Austin Powers look was to make the prisoners stick out like sore thumbs in situations that pose escape possibilities -- like when they are transported to and from court, when they are on work detail, or when they mix with civilians in the visiting rooms.

Think of how easy it would be for a guard operating the heavy electronic gates leading in and out of prison visiting rooms to spot an inmate attempting to escape: Orange equals bad. Non-orange equals good.

Did the new color-based system create a false sense of security for the prison guards? Did they become complacent?

Think of how easy it was for Christina Acker to change into the lab coat. She might have tucked the orange prison garments -- and a few of her favorite legal papers -- into her underpants to avoid suspicion. She might have looked a bit bloated, but no matter.

"Guard," she'd call from the visitor's room.

"Let me out. I'm done."

The guard would smile at the sweet old lady with a big tummy dressed in a lab coat.

Orange equals bad. Non-orange equals good.

The corrections officer would open the electronic gate. Acker would walk out, tuck her prison garb beneath a parked car, get into a different car with an accomplice, then smile sweetly at the last set of guards. If the guards wanted to search the car, so be it. The telltale orange uniform would be nowhere to be found.

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