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Archive for Wednesday, March 18, 1998

DEPUTIES FOIL ESCAPE ATTEMPT

March 18, 1998

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David Cox and Kipling Johnson apparently hoped to escape through the ceiling of their Douglas County Jail cell, but a surprise inspection halted their plans.

Two Douglas County Jail inmates who took a rural Lawrence couple hostage in January are suspected of trying to break out of the jail through the ceiling and painstakingly covering their efforts with toothpaste and hair gel colored to match the paint.

Kipling Johnson, 32, and David Cox, 35, were removed from the jail Monday hours after deputies noticed the two had pried apart sheet metal above their shower, creating a 6- to 8-inch opening when pushed from below.

The two were quickly moved to another county jail. Sheriff Loren Anderson wouldn't say where the two men are now, but Douglas County routinely sends inmates to other counties, including Jefferson, Brown and Johnson counties because of overcrowding.

Cox and Johnson have lengthy criminal histories, mainly consisting of robbery and burglary charges. Anderson said he knew the two were risks because Cox had once escaped from custody in Wyandotte County in 1985. Details of that escape were not immediately available.

The escape attempt was found during an inspection of the cell block, which the two kidnapping suspects shared with another inmate. Only Cox and Johnson, however, are believed to have been involved in the attempt.

Jail personnel were aware of Cox and Johnson's past criminal history and the risk it posed, Anderson said. The sheriff said the two were allowed out of their cells for only an hour a day for the first two weeks after their January arrests.

It was this extra security and scrutiny that foiled any escape attempt, which may have been a long shot even if they had pried open the ceiling, the sheriff said.

``It was from the fact that they have this in mind, and we knew we'd better stay on our toes or we'd be in trouble,'' Anderson said.

The jail, on the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St., is built for 50 inmates. The cell block Cox and Johnson were in has five separate cells that open into a ``day area,'' where inmates stay from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The small, enclosed shower area is adjacent to the day area and is available for use throughout the day.

Sheriff's deputies can look through a 4-inch-by-6-inch glass window directly into the shower area. It was there, in plain sight, that the men used a 30-inch piece of angled (L-shaped) iron to pry six to eight spot welds loose.

Deputy Randal Smith said inmates often stand on the toilet in the area to talk to inmates from other cell blocks through a vent above the toilet. Had a sheriff's deputy seen one of the men standing there while working on the ceiling, it may have appeared they were talking to someone through the vent, Smith said.

Although the toothpaste and hair gel concoction the inmates used to hide their tracks might have been convincing enough for the casual observer, slight discolorations in the light blue paint are visible. The smell, however, was a dead giveaway.

``When you walked in the door, it smelled like a dentist's office,'' Anderson said. ``We said, `What in the world are they doing with all this toothpaste?'''

The 3/8-inch thick panel, when removed, would have allowed access to a crawlspace above the cell area. Anderson said the men would have had to break through the ceiling again and go through at least one security door that is locked at all times.

Only one inmate, Russell Baston, has escaped from the jail since it opened in December 1976. In January 1996, Baston overpowered a jailer and escaped through a security door. Other inmates, including Chad Beers, have escaped while in custody, but not while they were in the jail.

The Douglas County district attorney's office received reports on the escape attempt Tuesday morning, but charges had not been filed as of Tuesday night. Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney Tonkovich is on vacation this week and was not available for comment.

Tonkovich is handling the kidnapping case involving Cox and Johnson. The two men are accused of driving a stolen car to the home of Ralph and Leila Leary, 1509 N. 1100 Rd., on Jan. 22 and holding them hostage. Leila Leary was released 12 hours later when Cox surrendered. Her husband was held for almost 48 hours. No one was injured during the hostage crisis.

Cox and Johnson are charged with three counts of kidnapping, two counts of aggravated robbery, and one count each of attempted aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit burglary. Johnson has also been charged with criminal possession of a firearm.

They waived their preliminary hearing and are awaiting a May 11 trial. The trial may be postponed at the request of prosecutors or defense attorneys.

Cox has spent almost six years in Kansas prisons and was last released Dec. 30. Johnson has spent 11 1/2 years in various Kansas prisons, beginning in May 1983. He was released Dec. 10.

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is koger@ljworld.com.

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