With a Murder and Jailbreak Behind Him, Rogue Cop Bob Erler Turns to the Ministry

updated 10/08/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 01:00AM

Golden Gloves, Black Belt, Green Beret—Bob Erler had won all those emblems of the colors of manhood. Finally came the silver badge of a policeman in Hollywood, Fla. and a reputation as a supercop. Then, on Aug. 11, 1968, Erler met Dorothy Clark, a 42-year-old drifter who, with her daughter, Merilyn, had been sleeping on the beach. At his invitation, they spent the night in his trailer. But when Erler propositioned Dorothy, she turned him down. Erler exploded. "Something just clicked," he recalls, "and I said, 'Kill her!' It was like retreating back in my mind and watching myself do it. The little girl started screaming, so I shot her too."

Now, 11 years after Merilyn Clark's murder—her mother miraculously survived—Erler's life has taken another bizarre turn. The North Phoenix Baptist Church, a conservative Arizona congregation of 9,000, has licensed him as a minister. "We've seen gifts in him and are convinced that he's been called to the gospel ministry," says associate pastor Harold Green. "We know where he's been and where he wants to go. We believe he's a rocket that just needs to be aimed."

Certainly, Erler's 34-year trajectory has been spectacular. The oldest son of a father who insisted on excellence, Erler became a boxing champion while in high school in Phoenix. Dropping out to join the Army during his junior year, he went on to serve as a Special Forces instructor. When his father's death barred him from combat in Vietnam, Erler got out to become a cop. He declared a war of his own—on crime.

Aggressive and quick-tempered, Erler soon led the Hollywood force in arrests. Then, in 1968, his teenage bride, Patricia, left him, taking with her their infant son. Distraught, Erler tried to vent his anger by running every day on the beach where, a month later, he encountered the Clarks. After the shooting, he dumped the bodies and phoned headquarters. "I just killed," Erler told the dispatcher, without identifying himself. "Please catch me! Come and get me. I may kill tonight too!" Then Erler reported for duty. "I worked on the case for about a month," Erler recalls, "and even arrested suspects. I don't know what was going on inside me. One time, I had to play the tape of my voice on the phone to the other detectives. We listened to it, and they said they really felt sorry for the guy. I said, 'So do I.' "

Dorothy Clark was finally able to identify her attacker, and Erler, who had quit the force and returned to Arizona, was captured and sentenced to 99 years and six months. In prison the burly ex-cop fought to make his name as the toughest con in the yard—a battle that cost him several teeth, a broken jaw and 100 stitches in his head. Then in 1973 he scaled a wall, swam an alligator-filled moat and escaped, eluding capture for six months. He fell in with the mob in Miami, married again and helped instruct a karate club at Mississippi State University. He was finally captured when he tried to pick up a mail-order .357 Magnum at the Mathiston, Miss. post office.

Back in prison, Erler turned to evangelism. He organized a Jaycee chapter and earned straight A's in correspondence courses in religion. Transferred to the Arizona State Prison two years ago, he baptized more than 100 of his fellow cons in an irrigation ditch. "He had that karate and that religion, and the men respected it," marveled one guard captain. "I've never seen anything like it."

Last year the Arizona parole board recommended that Erler be released on parole, but Florida authorities have not yet consented. If he must, says Erler, he is ready to put in more time. "Another year would just make me stronger," he says. "I don't have to prove anything anymore, except to God. After all these years of hard time, I've found this incredible freedom."

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