Few area criminals grabbed the public's attention like Michael Damron.

As a 31-year-old electrical engineering student at North Dakota State University, he sawed through 19 thick underground phone cables the night of Jan. 21, 1995, in Fargo-Moorhead.

Damron planned and successfully disabled alarms so he could raid the Fargo electronics store Site On Sound at 1443 Main Ave., where $80,000 in equipment was stolen the same day as the telephone vandalism.

Authorities in Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D., later recovered the merchandise, most of it from Damron's apartment and some from a storage unit he rented in Sioux Falls.

The act caused $1 million in damage and wreaked havoc on Fargo-Moorhead-area phones and computers for a week.

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Damron initially escaped. A nationwide manhunt for the suspect lasted 21 months. After his arrest and conviction in 1997, he made waves again last year when he sent a menacing prison letter to a Bismarck district judge, promising one "evil act" a month against the public.

At 8 a.m. Saturday, after more than eight years in custody, Damron, now 41, will be free again.

Law enforcement officials said they're taking precautions in anticipation of the release, but nothing more than what they occasionally do for other inmates.

Last week Fargo police officials sent an e-mail to their employees with Damron's picture, details of his prison release and background on his crimes and threats.

"Anytime you have somebody convicted on something that serious and they are released, you have concern," Lt. Tod Dahle said Friday. "It had as much impact on the community as any crime I recall."

Sheriff's departments in the North Dakota counties of Burleigh and Cass are circulating Damron's photo, and Burleigh County Sheriff Steve Berg planned to speak with Judge Gail Hagerty, to whom Damron addressed the 2004 letter.

"We don't foresee that there's going to be a problem, but it's always better that we're prepared," Berg said.

Hagerty declined comment for this article.

A Burleigh County jury found Damron not guilty last June of threatening a public official with the letter, which Damron sent after Hagerty dismissed his lawsuit against another inmate.

While at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, Damron frequently threatened other inmates, said Warden Tim Schuetzle.

"He's threatened me a number of times," Schuetzle added. "He's really angry - a very angry person."

Damron has refused media interviews leading up to his release, Schuetzle said.

Once he's out, he must still complete two years of supervised release for being a felon in possession of a firearm, a federal charge for which he must first report to Fargo within 72 hours of his release. After that, he may be allowed to settle elsewhere.

Cathy Jensen, inmate records supervisor for the prison, said records show Damron plans to move to Eagan, Minn., to live with his mother.

But Schuetzle said Damron sometimes says otherwise.

"He keeps telling us he's going to stay in Bismarck and make our lives miserable," Schuetzle said.

An elaborate plan

In the days after the 1995 phone line crime, plenty of Fargo-Moorhead residents had miserable moments because of Damron.

At the time, it was the worst act of sabotage in the history of US West Communications, now Qwest Communications. The company scrambled to fix the damage, sending workers out in 12-hour shifts to splice thousands of wires back together. They toiled in frigid temperatures and cramped spaces, splicing as many as 18,000 wires per cable, some of them cut more than once.

Much of Moorhead lost phone service, including emergency 911. The police set up community centers for emergency calls and Moorhead Mayor Morrie Lanning declared a limited state of emergency. Stores brought in extra security because their alarms didn't work.

"It was bad," said Lt. Bob Larson, the Moorhead police supervisor the night of the vandalism. "I just remembered how we scrambled."

An estimated 20,000 area residents lost phone service, and this at a time when cell phones were scarce. Cashiers processed credit cards by hand, banks closed, businesses worked without the still-new Internet and police guarded telephone equipment perceived as vulnerable to further sabotage.

Police targeted Damron after a tip from an FBI agent in Mankato, Minn., who knew of Damron's criminal past. Armed with a search warrant, officers found in his north Fargo apartment items stolen from Site On Sound and a gas-powered construction saw covered with copper dust.

They also found a map of Fargo-Moorhead, marked at the sites where phone lines were cut, and a spiral-bound notebook featuring a list titled "Getaway." The brainstorm for possible escape ideas included the following: "Snowmobile, motorized hang glider, dirt bike, golf cart, scuba-diving equipment."

The eccentricities didn't end there. Damron kept bandit-faced raccoons and ferrets as pets and stored boxes of lobster tails and 10-pound bags of shrimp in his apartment.

While police were searching his place, Damron returned with an attorney, but an officer guarding the home wouldn't let him in. The police didn't feel they had enough evidence then to arrest him, so Damron left. Police issued an arrest warrant later that night and the manhunt began.

In and out of trouble

Damron had been on the run before. In 1987, on his 24th birthday, he escaped from a minimum-security facility near Duluth, Minn. Two years later, he was shot twice during an attempted burglary of a lounge in Mississippi. Before moving to Fargo, he served prison time in Minnesota for felony theft in Le Sueur and Nicollet counties.

The manhunt in the Fargo case ended Nov. 1, 1996, when the FBI arrested Damron in an Iowa motel. Back in Cass County, he pleaded guilty to cutting the phone lines and possessing stolen goods. Judge Lawrence Leclerc sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

While incarcerated, Damron was cited for at least 20 rule violations, a number that Warden Schuetzle called above average but not extremely high. Many of the infractions were minor, such as the times he grabbed for more than the two cookies allowed at lunch, didn't clean his cell or gave his magazine to another inmate.

The more serious matters included his threats, Schuetzle said. One target was a blind inmate.

"He's threatened a lot of people," Schuetzle said.

North Dakota inmates can earn up to five days of "good time" off their sentence per month. Damron lost an opportunity of 60 days of good time because of his violations, but he also earned 78 days for helping inmates at risk of suicide as part of the Crisis Intervention Team.

The letter to Judge Hagerty cost Damron 15 days of good time and 15 days in disciplinary detention, meaning authorities placed him away from the general prison population.

Damron also spent about 14 months of his sentence in a Stillwater, Minn., prison. Jensen said Damron requested the transfer to enroll in the Minnesota prison system's educational programs. While in Stillwater, Damron took computer-related classes.

Along with his prison sentence, Damron was ordered by Leclerc to pay $250,000 in restitution to US West. That amount was converted to a civil judgment, meaning Damron doesn't have to make payments unless Qwest seeks the money in civil court.

Scott Macintosh, state president for Qwest, said he doesn't know if his company plans to seek restitution.

North Dakota Regional Editor Steven P. Wagner contributed to this article

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538