County manager plans jail changes

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

Curry County Manager Lance Pyle said he plans to reveal an action plan for the adult detention center next week after he evaluates the recommendations of consultants.

The plan is being drafted in response to the Aug. 24 escape of eight inmates who cut a hole in the jail’s roof.

Four of the escapees — including convicted killer Edward Salas, 21, and murder suspect Larry McClendon Jr., 19 — remained at large Saturday night.

Pyle said last week he brought in a detention expert and state police to assess the jail and is awaiting their reports.

He also established a jail management board to oversee the facility and temporarily reassigned Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Bessette to assist jail administrators with facility management.

Pyle said more changes will be implemented Tuesday, but he declined to elaborate.

“We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and making changes and more will be implemented in weeks to come,” Pyle said.

District Attorney Matt Chandler said state police have sent a team to the jail and are investigating what happened leading up to the escape

Surveillance footage of escape activity in Pod 2 spans from 5 p.m. to about 9:45 p.m. on Aug. 24, when the escape was discovered by a Clovis police officer who spotted two inmates in orange jumpsuits on 12th Street.

The escapees got out of their pods via two different doors and then climbed up plumbing pipes to a hole they had cut in the roof using handmade implements.

Law enforcement, jail officials and county administration have yet to address why detention officers were not aware of the escape that took literally hours to complete.

Officials have also been mum about the possibility of detention officers assisting in the escape, saying only that the two panels inmates slipped through to access the plumbing should have been locked.

No detention center employees have been disciplined, fired, placed on leave or voluntarily resigned since the escape, Pyle said.

Officials said inmates from Pod 1 and Pod 2 accessed a plumbing chute in a common wall between the pods and spent approximately seven hours making a hole in the roof of the jail. Planning the escape occurred over a two- to three-day period, they said.

Bessette said Friday he would not discuss the investigation at the jail.

He said Pod 1 has been emptied and closed but would not discuss the status of Pod 2, saying only “security measures are in place.”

Escapees returned to the jail after capture — all four are back in Curry County — are being held in 24-hour isolation, he said.

Visiting privileges for all inmates at the jail were suspended after the escape, but may be reinstated Tuesday, he said.

Law enforcement has said there is a two-pronged effort focused most importantly on finding the escapees but also on figuring out what went wrong at the jail.

A combination of local, state and federal authorities have continued their search for the missing inmates.

Creating impact teams for each escapee, officers have pressured family, friends and known associates of the escapees for information. They’ve orchestrated searches, outstanding warrant sweeps and arrests.

Four inmates were arrested last week for allegedly helping cover up the escape activity. Three others have also been charged with obstructing officers or harboring and assisting the escapees, including one escapee’s father and a second escapee’s mother.

While tips and information have led law enforcement to Albuquerque (where the most recent inmate was captured on Thursday), west Texas (where two inmates were located), and Clovis, they are not narrowing their search, Chandler said.

The most recently apprehended escapee, Victor Sotelo, was back at the Clovis jail on Saturday.

“We interviewed him in detail in regard to the escape (and) we believe that we still have a great deal of momentum (in our search for the other four),” Chandler said Saturday, declining to say if Sotelo provided any information of value to the investigation.

“Law enforcement officers are receiving multiple tips through the Crime Stopper’s hotline and those (working) the investigation around the clock are very optimistic that they are making progress and getting close to the remaining four escapees.”

Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border have been placed on alert and nationwide alerts are active, Chandler said.