The owner chased the would-be drunken and bungling burglars out the front door, and they jumped in their car and took off down the street. At the first stop sign, a highway patrolman pulled them over. Fearing he was heading to jail, Merle jumped out of the car and sprinted for the train depot so he could hop a freight train out of town, but no trains were running because it was Christmas Eve. The local depot deputy apprehended and arrested Merle.
In the Bakersfield jail on Christmas Day awaiting arraignment, Merle waited for the right moment, and literally walked right out the front door of the jail. This was officially Merle’s fifth escape from jail during his criminal career. When Merle made his way to his older brother Lowell’s house, the police were there waiting in the weeds, threw the cuffs on him, and this time made sure there was no escape.
It wasn’t the severity of the crimes, but Merle’s multiple escapes from custody that made a judge decide to send Merle to California’s most notorious maximum security prison, the big house, San Quentin, where Merle was sentenced to serve up to 15 years. He was transferred to the prison on February 21, 1958. Luckily for Merle and the rest of us, Merle’s stay in San Quentin scared him straight, and after 2 1/2 years of good behavior (and watching Johnny Cash perform at the prison in 1960), Merle was paroled.
Merle remained a convicted criminal though, and even as his country music career took off, his past haunted him, both as an ugly reminder of past transgressions, and also just as a logistical nightmare. When traveling out of the country or in other certain circumstances, Merle had to declare his legal history. But that all changed on March 14th, 1972 when the California Governor Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Merle Ronald Haggard for all past crimes.