Inmates who escaped from the Curry County jail last month may have gained freedom with a key swiped from guards who were busy with plumbing repairs.
There is no indication the eight inmates who escaped received intentional help from jail staff, District Attorney Matt Chandler said after reviewing a report compiled by one of his investigators.
Inmates managed to take a key left hanging in the lock of a plumbing chase, unlock doors, and return the key without officers knowing, the report alleges. A plumbing chase houses pipes.
Detention officers were working to repair a clogged toilet when inmates took the key, inmates told investigators.
The detention officers who were doing the plumbing repairs said they didn’t know if the key was left in the chase door but one said the scenario told by the inmates “was possible,” the report said.
Eight inmates escaped two days later, on Aug. 24, by climbing into an unlocked plumbing chase and cutting a hole in the roof.
Four were caught within a week of the escape. The other four, including a convicted murderer and a suspected killer, remain on the loose.
Chandler blamed the escape on “complacency” and “a failure to pay attention to detail.”
The report, produced by Dan Aguilar of the district attorney's office, also said:
• Pod checks scheduled every hour were not done at all during the weekend of the Sunday night escape because of staffing shortages. Inmates said detention officers rarely entered the pods where prisoners are housed.
• Cell doors within the pods designed to be locked down at night and in case of emergencies didn’t work for several months, allowing inmates free run of the pods.
Chandler said he hopes to see assurances that measures are being taken to correct the issues that made the escape possible.
“The complacency didn’t develop overnight. It takes time to develop that type of atmosphere. I believe that as (county) investigations continue, they will find many of those procedures and policies (that should have been followed) have been thrown to the wind for quite some time,” he said.
Days after the escape, the county transferred a sheriff’s deputy to the detention center as an assistant administrator and brought in consultants to assess the jail.
The county has declined to release the assessment or discuss its findings publicly.
Chandler said he believes those that have recently been placed in charge at the jail are going to make the appropriate changes, “and it’s going to take time, but time is of the essence.”
County Manager Lance Pyle said Tuesday night he had reviewed the criminal investigation report and declined to comment specifically on its contents.
“Based on the nature of the issue with regards to personnel, I am restricted from commenting,” Pyle said.
No jail employee has been suspended, demoted or terminated, he said.
“This is a top priority for the county, we understand the seriousness of this and the administrative investigation is still being conducted by (Assistant Detention Center Administrator) Keith Bessette,” Pyle said.
Bessette said he anticipates his internal investigation will be completed in about two weeks.
Bessette said a criminal investigation can be considered in an internal investigation, though he would not say if he is considering the findings of the district attorney's office in his investigation.
Inmates used the key they took from guards to unlock a rarely used door between pods, according to Aguilar's report. The key was slipped under a second door to inmates in a neighboring pod, who were able to unlock a door in their pod and the plumber’s chase door from which the eight escaped, the report alleges.
Inmates told the investigator over the course of the weekend leading up to the escape that inmates were traveling back and forth between Pods 1 and 2 to get tattoos and socialize.
Two inmates said they heard banging noises throughout the weekend but dismissed it, thinking work was being done somewhere in the building.
Chandler said investigators believe the tools the inmates used to cut through the roof were fashioned out of scraps of metal they found in the plumbing chase, left behind from previous repair work.