The night two violent inmates escaped from the back of a New Mexico prison van, the corrections officers tasked with transporting them had just left an Artesia gas station when they say they heard the vehicle’s locks click.
In Corrections Department documents, a warden’s report said the van’s driver pulled to the side of the road, with the other officer jumping out to check the back door. He discovered it open, shut it, and got back inside the vehicle bound for Las Cruces, still 200 miles away, reportedly without having checked on the prisoners in the back.
Now, details of the March 9 roadside stop — disclosed in documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request — have raised concerns over security safeguards inside the transport vans at the time of the escape.
The stop also has renewed questions over how the officers, who remain on paid administrative leave, may have missed opportunities at different turns to discover convicted murderer Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah, another violent felon, had managed to bolt from the van.
Transport officers Taracina Morgan and Michael Ortega could not be reached for comment Thursday, but a spokesman for the union that represents them indicated he was leery of suggestions that Ortega discovered an open door without conducting a headcount.
“Of all the pieces of the story that would have been one of the huge elements of this — that after Artesia, they pulled over and found a door open,” said Miles Conway, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “That does not fit in with any investigation pieces we’ve been given so far.”
According to a warden’s conference call report, Morgan had told a lieutenant in Las Cruces about the stop around the time she realized Cruz and Clah were missing.
By then, it was nearly 1 a.m. March 10, and the felons were likely northbound after hitching a ride to Albuquerque — where Cruz was spotted and arrested days later near the University of New Mexico and Clah surrendered to police at an apartment complex.
State police have said Cruz and Clah broke out of the prison van after picking the locks on their handcuffs with some sort of wire, and they made a break for it in the area of the Artesia gas station. But they haven’t said how the men managed to unlock the vehicle’s doors and slip by the guards.
It remained unclear Thursday how much time may have passed between when the men escaped and authorities say officers heard the van’s power locks click. A state police spokeswoman forwarded questions about the stop to an investigator who did not immediately provide comment.
Since the escape, officials have removed power locks and door handles from the interior rear area of roughly a dozen Corrections Department vans, according to the documents obtained by the AP. Alex Tomlin, the department’s deputy secretary of administration, said she could not speak to why the locks had not been removed years ago in the first place, or whether having locks accessible from the inside of the back of the van facilitated in the escape.
“I don’t think we were out of compliance by having these locks in there,” she said. “We’re just taking away that element that makes (an escape) a possibility.”
Corrections officials also have spent $700,000 on five new vans, two buses, one medical transport unit and other equipment since March, she said.
Video cameras have been placed inside all the vehicles, though Conway said union officials remained disappointed that the cameras are intended to record officers and less so the inmates.
“I think it’s an accurate read that the incident caused the department, the union and everybody to take a very close look at the entire system,” he said. “We certainly want to stay vigilant. We certainly don’t want them to be caught with their guard down.”