Investigation shows state prison officers slacking during escape

Thursday, January 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ One prison guard was working on a crossword puzzle and two others did not notice prisoners were missing from their cells the night three inmates escaped from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, an investigation showed.

Two of the three fugitives _ one a convicted killer _ eluded capture for three days after breaking out of their underground cells almost one year ago. Escape charges were filed last month in Pittsburg County District Court against James Robert Thomas, Willie Lee Hoffman and Nathan Washington.

A prison investigation, which ended in October, resulted in short-term suspensions of three high-level prison officers.

Two correctional officers previously were suspended for 30 days each and a third officer resigned the day of the escape.

The investigation showed that escape sirens were not sounded until at least one hour after the Jan. 15 escape was discovered. And local police weren't notified until after that.

``There was some confusion that morning,'' Warden Gary Gibson told the McAlester News Capital & Democrat.

``There's a lot of things that went wrong that night that we've worked hard to correct.''

The investigation showed an officer in a security tower was working on a crossword puzzle that night. He was near the fences scaled by the three inmates, who used a pipe fashioned as a grappling hook that was connected to braided bed sheets.

A heater buzzing inside the tower made it hard for the guard to hear the pipe hitting the wire, officials said.

That officer, Cpl. William Masters, was suspended for 30 days with pay.

``If he'd have been watching, looking and listening he would have probably seen them on the roof and hitting the fence,'' the warden said.

Cpl. Frank Luttrell, a correctional officer responsible for inmate counts, was suspended for 30 days last summer.

Luttrell was assigned to do a count after authorities found Washington bloodied and trapped in razor wire between two perimeter fences. The officer reported that Hoffman was in his cell when he did the count _ two hours after Hoffman had escaped.

Luttrell also reported seeing all three inmates in their cells during his first count at 4 a.m. The inmates likely were on their way to the prison roof by 4 a.m., the investigation showed.

Officers are required to check for flesh and movement, such as breathing, during counts.

Hoffman had ``dummied up his bed'' to make it look like he was there, the warden said. He eventually was discovered missing at 7 a.m.

Todd Smith, another officer responsible for counting that night, resigned.

Other officers suspended were Shift Capt. Frank Morgan; Chief of Security Royce Melton, then the acting deputy warden of administration; and Robert Berry, former manger of the H Unit, the highest security unit at the prison.

Berry was suspended for three days, Morgan for five days and Melton for one day.

``People in responsibility thought things were being taken care of, and they weren't,'' the warden said. ``Now they are.

``For years, we though that H Unit was impenetrable, that it couldn't be compromised. But on Jan. 15, we found that it could be.''