Report: Escaped inmates stole key

CLOVIS — Inmates who escaped from the Curry County jail last month likely took a key left in the lock of a door to an area housing pipes without officers who were working on a plumbing repair noticing, according to a report by the district attorney’s office.

District Attorney Matt Chandler previously said authorities were focusing on whether the inmates had inside help, but after reviewing the report compiled by one of his investigators said that there was no indication the jail staff intentionally aided in the escape.

Four of the inmates are still at large, but Chandler said authorities are following up on “credible tips” in the last few days that have placed some of the fugitives in Amarillo and Plainview, Texas, and Clovis.

The report released Tuesday found the most likely explanation was that an inmate took the key that was left hanging in the door, while two detention officers were busy fixing a clogged toilet inside the compartment.

Two inmates told an investigator that the key was then passed into a separate unit at the jail and used to unlock other doors that housed plumbing fixtures before being returned to the initial door within about 10 minutes, the report found. The officers never realized the key was missing.

The officers involved said they did not know if the key was left in the door, but one said the scenario told by the inmates “was possible,” the report said.

Eight inmates escaped two days later, on Aug. 24, by climbing into an unlocked plumbing compartment and cutting a hole in the roof.

Four were caught within a week of the escape. The other four, including convicted killer Edward Salas and murder suspect Larry McClendon Jr., remain on the loose.

After the escape was mentioned for a second time on “America’s Most Wanted” television program Saturday, Chandler said Clovis authorities received about 30 new tips that indicated the escapees should be considered armed and some may be together.

Two inmates told Dan Aguilar of the district attorney’s office that they had heard banging noises two days before the escape, but dismissed them, thinking that work was being done somewhere in the building.

Chandler said investigators believe the tools the inmates used to cut through the roof were fashioned out of scraps of metal they found in the plumbing chase, left behind from previous repair work.

The report also said:

• Checks of the inmate pods scheduled every hour were not done during the weekend of the Sunday night escape because of staffing shortages.

• Cell doors within the pods designed to be locked down at night and in case of emergencies did not work for several months, allowing inmates to run free between the pods.

Chandler blamed the escape on “complacency” and a failure to pay attention to detail.

“The complacency didn’t develop overnight. It takes time to develop that type of atmosphere,” he said.

Chandler said the report was given to county officials and his office has “been assured that the new jail management is going to address the concerns immediately.”

Days after the escape, the county transferred a sheriff’s deputy to the detention center as an assistant administrator and brought in consultants to assess the jail.

County Manager Lance Pyle said he had reviewed the district attorney office’s report, but declined to talk about it because it touched on personnel matters.

No jail employee has been suspended, demoted or terminated, he said.

The county is conducting its own investigation into why the escape happened, Pyle said. That investigation should be completed in about two weeks.