EL DORADO After more than two days on the lam, two fugitive prison inmates and the former guard who allegedly helped them flee were caught Wednesday in New Mexico when unsuspecting police officers responded to a routine call about a man looking into cars at an apartment complex, authorities said.
One of the inmates fired four shots at police during a short-lived struggle with the escaped convicts. The former guard who allegedly helped them escape was found sleeping in one of the getaway cars, said Detective Moses Marquez of the Grants Police Department.
Their arrests ended a multistate search for inmates Steven A. Ford and Jesse L. Bell and former prison guard Amber Goff that spanned some 600 miles after Ford and Bell escaped from a recreation yard at the El Dorado Correctional Facility near Wichita on Sunday night.
Authorities were investigating whether Goff had a romantic relationship with Ford, and her mother said she had mentioned him often. Goff, 23, worked at the prison from September 2006 until this month. Her family said she was forced to resign after she was accused of "undue familiarity" with an inmate over an incident involving a greeting card.
"There was obviously a relationship that existed prior to the escape," prison spokesman Bill Miskell said Wednesday, declining to be more specific. The ongoing investigation has found no wrongdoing by current prison employees, he added.
The case bore similarities to another Kansas prison break in February 2006 in which a woman helped a convicted murderer escape from the Lansing Correctional Facility in a dog crate she used for a dog-training program at the prison. John M. Manard and Toby Young were captured nearly two weeks later in Tennessee.
Ford, Bell and Goff eluded the manhunt for them for far less time. They were found in Grants, N.M., thanks to the call about a suspicious man peering into vehicles.
Sgt. Jason Fank and Officer Jessie Nieto chased after two men they saw running from a back door at the apartment complex, catching Bell as he was trying to jump a fence, Marquez said.
Ford, who had hidden between a pair of cars about 35 yards away, fired four shots at the officers as they talked to Bell, Marquez said. Neither officer was struck by the shots.
"'Get down, get down on the ground! Let me see your hands!"' Marquez said the officers screamed at Ford. "So he just did what he was told."
At first, both men were defiant when they were taken into custody. "'We ain't telling you our name, we ain't telling you nothing,"' Marquez said Bell and Ford told the officers.
"But we talked to Bell and he said, 'You know what, you're gonna find out sooner or later that we're wanted in Kansas for escaping,"' Marquez said.
Goff was found asleep in the driver's seat of a car parked in the driveway of a vacant home, Marquez said. A stolen handgun was in the vehicle and another stolen gun was found on Bell, Marquez said.
Bell, Ford and Goff were taken to the Cibola County Detention Center, were they were being held pending extradition to Kansas, Marquez said.
"The only thing they talked about was staying in Tucumcari. Other than that, they didn't say why they were here or where they were headed," Marquez said.
Tucumcari is 164 miles east of Albuquerque.
Ford and Bell had lacerations on their bodies that were sustained from their escape, said Deputy U.S. Marshal Troy Oberly.
Goff's mother, Laurie Ann Nutter, said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning that she was relieved her daughter was found alive and apparently unharmed.
"I think I might sleep tonight," Nutter said. "It is just unbelievable. I think I have been holding my breath for three days."
Bell, 33, was booked on charges of felon in possession of a firearm, evading-fleeing a police officer, possession of stolen property and escaping a prison facility.
Ford, 26, was booked on charges of tampering with evidence, assault with intent to commit a violent felony, felon in possession of a firearm, evading-fleeing a police officer and escaping a prison facility.
Butler County, Kan., District Attorney Jan Satterfield said Goff was charged Monday with aiding an escape from a correctional facility and aiding a felon after an escape. She was booked on that warrant Wednesday.
Satterfield said she would ask the U.S. attorney's office to file federal charges in an effort to seek the maximum sentence possible.
Goff's family had not yet hired an attorney. It was unclear whether the two inmates had attorneys.
Goff's stepfather, Grant Nutter, said the family was not surprised by the charges.
"We know they are going to be trying to stack on as many charges as they can to plead down to. It is also their job to try to get people in jail to please the public. ... We are hoping they don't do that. We don't know the entire story," he said.
Goff left her two sons, ages 7 and 5, with her sister before going on what she said was a dinner date Sunday night, family members said.
Goff waited near the prison fence for the inmates, prison officials said. Her car was found 15 miles away with items linked to the escape.
Ford is serving a sentence from Wyandotte County for robbery and indecent liberties. Bell is serving sentences from Finney, Leavenworth and Cowley counties for forgery, burglary, battery and escape.
It could take as long as 90 days to return them to Kansas, although officials expect that may happen in about a week if they do not fight extradition.