October 20, 2013

Police focus on how two convicted killers were mistakenly released

A Florida official says there will be more arrests once the source of the phony court documents is discovered.

The Associated Press

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. – Back in custody after using forged documents to escape their life sentences, two convicted killers were being grilled on Sunday by law enforcement authorities who said they expect to make more arrests in a case that has given both court and corrections officials in Florida a black eye.

Among the questions being posed to Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker: Who forged the papers? Who helped you run from police? What other prisoners have gotten away with this? Who was coming from Atlanta to whisk you out of Florida?

“I can tell you, there will be more arrests,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey told a news conference Sunday, hours after Jenkins and Walker, both 34, were arrested without incident at a motel in Panama City.

“We will be backtracking to those who helped carry out this fraud and along the way we will be looking closely at anyone who may have helped harbor these fugitives,” Bailey said.

Jenkins and Walker, both 34, were captured Saturday night at the Coconut Grove Motor Inn in Panama City Beach, a touristy area of putt-putt courses and go-kart tracks. Hours earlier, their families had held a news conference in Orlando – 350 miles away – urging them to surrender.

The men, who had fled the Orlando area after word of their ruse became public, did not know law enforcement was on the way to Panama City. They were waiting in the motel for someone to arrive from Atlanta to take them out of state, Bailey said, adding that authorities don’t yet know who that person was or where the convicts planned to go. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is working with Georgia authorities to answer those questions, he said.

“They had to have had help – a lot of help – to get to where they were last night,” Bailey said. He said the men were unarmed and didn’t have much money on them.

Bailey’s department is pursuing a tip that someone was offering to forge documents for prisoners for $8,000. He said there are at least two other recent cases where prisoners were thwarted trying to use fake documents to escape.

“The documents themselves looked good, they looked official,” Bailey said, although they contained the signatures of people who normally don’t deal with release documents, something that maybe should have raised questions, he said.

Meanwhile, Corrections Secretary Michael Crews scheduled a meeting with court clerks on Monday to find ways to prevent future escapes through bogus documents.

“It is embarrassing, but my concentration at this point is making sure that we come up with a process and a procedure that prohibits this from happening in the future,” Crews told a news conference.

Crews has already ordered his department to begin verifying the legitimacy of early-release orders with a judge, not just court clerks. He said his department receives a few thousand such orders each year, although he acknowledged that reduced sentences in murder cases are rare.

He also expressed relief that the men were captured.

“I did a lot of praying for the last five or six days,” he said. “To say we’re thankful I think is probably an understatement. These were two hardened, convicted felons and the thought of them being out there in our state caused me great concern.”

The two prisoners had not been traveling together, but hooked up once word of the forgeries became public and traveled from Orlando to Panama City, said Frank Chiumento, chief of the U.S. Marshals Service for Florida and the Caribbean.

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