A convicted murderer and another inmate remained at large Wednesday night after escaping from a Kansas jail where they’d been transferred because of overcrowding at a state prison. Two others were apprehended, one after he turned himself in at a Wal-Mart in Nebraska.
The Kansas Highway Patrol reported that the four men escaped from the Ottawa County Jail in Minneapolis, a small town about 120 miles west of Topeka, about 4:45 a.m. One was quickly apprehended and the other was taken into custody almost 13 hours later. The two still at large are Santos Carrera-Morales and Eric James, both 22.
Authorities said Drew Wade, 21, was alone when he was taken into custody around 5:30 p.m. in North Platte, Neb. Wade had traveled in a stolen minivan to the Nebraska town, about 240 miles northwest of the Kansas jail, authorities said.
Wade told North Platte police that he’d phoned his father, and his father persuaded him to turn himself in.
“He walked into the local Wal-Mart,” said police Sgt. Gary Hovey. “He approached the manager and asked him to call the police.”
Authorities said that the escaped inmates stole at least two vehicles, and it wasn’t clear to them whether James and Carrera-Morales were traveling together. Authorities also said the two should be considered armed and dangerous, and North Platte police were warning that they could be in the area.
But Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman Ben Gardner acknowledged that authorities can’t be sure which direction James and Carrera-Morales were headed.
Hovey said Wade told North Platte police, “They all went in separate directions after they got out.”
In escaping from the Kansas jail, the inmates were armed with homemade knives and overpowered guards after complaining about a broken water line in the holding cell area, Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman told The Salina Journal. Coleman, who didn’t return messages from The Associated Press, said the inmates were able to open the cell doors and make their way outside. The guards suffered only minor injuries.
The Ottawa County Jail passed an inspection before it was allowed to house prison inmates, said Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay. The four men were among 22 inmates who had been transferred from the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in January to help alleviate the prison’s overcrowding, which has been a prickly issue in Kansas in recent years.
Carrera-Morales was 17 when he and two other people were convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of a teenager and young man in Sedgwick County in March 2007. Police in Wichita, where Carrera-Morales has ties, said all were gang members.
James was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping and criminal damage charges across three counties for crimes in February 2008, while Wade was convicted of robbery and aggravated battery, according to online prison records. Records also show the three had numerous disciplinary issues while behind bars.
Barclay said Wade, James and Carrera-Morales had medium-security status and were deemed candidates for being housed outside the prison. He said the status is based on an evaluation of the individual upon entering the prison system.
The escape prompted North Ottawa County schools Superintendent Larry Combs to call off classes Wednesday, and the town was locked down for part of the morning.
“The kids in the country would probably be fine, but if the escapees were on the streets and we have 300 kids who walk to school on a nice spring day, I felt it was in the best interest of the kids to keep them out of schools today so they’re not a target,” Combs said.
Sandy Clanton, executive director of the Minneapolis Area Chamber of Commerce, said most people didn’t seem overly alarmed, though they weren’t immediately informed about the escapees’ crimes.
“We knew it was fairly serious because the state patrol was here,” she said. “Not a whole lot of community information is given about the inmates.”
Overcrowding in Kansas’ prisons has been exacerbated in recent years by closures and budget cuts. As of Friday, 87 inmates were being housed in county jails under contracts to help alleviate overcrowding, Barclay said.
Inmate counts earlier this year showed men’s prisons are housing 8,635 inmates, 266 over capacity.
The Department of Corrections inspects jails that apply to house state inmates based on about a dozen requirements, such as proper security measures and capacity. Jails in Butler, Cowley, Leavenworth, Johnson and Ottawa counties house state inmates, receiving an average of $40 per day per inmate.
Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed using revenue from state-owned casinos to reopen a prison facility that was closed because of budget restraints in 2009. The Republican also wants to expand contracts with county jails.
Carrera is in prison for a first-degree murder in Sedgwick County that happened in March 2007. James was convicted of aggravated robbery in Bourbon County, two counts of aggravated burglary and kidnapping in Anderson County, and two counts of criminal damage in Allen County. All of those crimes happened in February 2008, according to online Department of Corrections records.
Wade was convicted in Shawnee County on robbery and aggravated battery charges.
Records also show that the three who remained at large had long histories of disciplinary issues while behind bars. Carrera was written up 39 times since January 2009, James had 38 violations since May 2009, and Wade had nine since 2011.
Barclay said the state prison system is facing overcrowding and that officials are asking legislators for funds to expand bed space at Ellsworth.
The escape prompted North Ottawa County schools superintendent Larry Combs to call off classes Wednesday. He initially called a two-hour delay but then canceled classes after being told at 8 a.m. that the men were still missing.
"We're a small town," Combs said. "The kids in the country would probably be fine, but if the escapees were on the streets and we have 300 kids who walk to school on a nice spring day, I felt it was in the best interest of the kids to keep them out of schools today so they're not a target.
"This was one of those decisions that's not on the books," he added. "We have crisis plans for almost all situations, but a jailbreak is not on that list."
Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman Ben Gardner said about 20 troopers, a canine unit and airplane are helping with the search. He acknowledged the seriousness of the men's crimes but said anyone who breaks out of jail should be considered dangerous.
"Whatever crimes they've committed are important to note, but in reality when they're trying to break free, there's no telling what could occur," Gardner said.