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October 21, 2013

Escaped Fla. prisoners grilled: Who helped you?

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 (Sha MENTO), chief of the U.S. Marshals Service for Florida and the Caribbean.

Chiumento told The Associated Press on Sunday that Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker knew their time on the run was limited once their ruse had been uncovered. They were under surveillance for about two and a half days, and the men were surprised when authorities finally knocked on their motel door.

A woman who answered the phone at the motel said she saw police coming and they went into room 227. After authorities left, the parking lot of the two-story motel next to Big Willy’s Swimwear was mostly empty.

Jenkins and Walker were both serving life sentences at the Franklin Correctional Facility in the Panhandle before they walked free without anyone realizing the paperwork, complete with case numbers and a judge’s forged signature, was bogus. The documents seemingly reduced their life sentences to 15 years.

Jenkins was released first on Sept. 27 and registered himself as a felon Sept. 30 in an Orlando jail. Walker was released Oct. 8 and also registered himself with authorities three days later.

Family members said they thought the releases were legitimate and that the convicts even spent time with their relatives before they disappeared.

Jenkins had been locked up since the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man. It wasn’t until Tuesday, when one of Pugh’s relatives contacted the state attorney’s office to let them know Jenkins had been let out, that authorities knew of the escape.

Prosecutors reviewed Jenkins’ case file and quickly discovered the forged paperwork, including motions from prosecutors to correct “illegal” sentences, accompanied by orders allegedly filed by Judge Belvin Perry within the last couple of months. The orders granted a 15-year sentence.

———

Farrington reported from Tallahassee.

 

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