County jail staff must be held accountable

Nobody suggests it’s easy to run a jail. But most would agree it’s a bad idea to arm a murder suspect with an ax and send him out on a work detail with a lone, unsuspecting county maintenance man to keep watch.

Yet that’s what happened Wednesday in Portales.

Roosevelt County officials admitted, eventually, they did not know an inmate they were keeping for Eddy County was awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges. Senovio Mendoza Jr. took advantage of this incompetence, attacking the county employee with the ax, tying him up with duct tape, stealing the man’s personal vehicle and ultimately leading police on a high-speed chase that ended in Sudan, Texas.

Almost as troubling is county officials failed even to admit the incident took place until a day after it ended, despite media inquiries. City police provided what little information they had, but the county sheriff’s office initially declined to acknowledge the incident to the public. County Manager Charlene Webb said Wednesday a press release would be prepared on Thursday.

Some of us would kinda like to know, as soon as possible, when ax-wielding murder suspects have been roaming around town.

The press release Webb promised was received on Thursday, but even that failed to note the escapee was a murder suspect whose long criminal record began identifying him as a “habitual offender” more than a decade ago.

That information came from the sleuthing of Portales News-Tribune Senior Reporter Christina Calloway who found it with minimal search of the Internet — a state courts website and the Carlsbad Current-Argus newspaper website, which provided details about how Mendoza’s first murder trial ended in a hung jury in February.

Confronted with all of these facts, Webb said she was taking responsibility for the county’s failures, then blamed Eddy County for allegedly failing to reveal the charges against Mendoza. Eddy County officials had not responded to her accusations by Saturday, but an Eddy County prosecutor told the Carlsbad newspaper no one in his office knew Mendoza was in Portales. Apparently they have so many murder suspects in Eddy County they can’t keep up with them all.

Whatever Eddy County’s shortcomings, Roosevelt County jail officials still have questions to answer:
Shouldn’t you know the criminal history of every inmate in your facility, using whatever resources are necessary? Don’t you need that fundamental information to keep rival gang members separated? To keep witnesses in criminal cases away from suspects in those cases? To identify those most likely to attempt escape? Or who’s likely to hit somebody with an ax, given the opportunity?

Wednesday’s incident, coupled with five inmates’ success escaping through the jail’s roof in two separate incidents last year, has raised serious questions about the ability of county jail officials to safely operate this facility.

Fortunately, the county employee was not seriously injured, nobody got run over in the 15-minute car chase through Roosevelt and Bailey counties, and no law officers were injured in the recapture of Mendoza.

And it’s good to see Roosevelt County has already returned 26 inmates it’s been housing from Eddy County, until both jails can get their acts together.
Now the attention falls to Roosevelt County commissioners to hold staff accountable for making sure this never happens again.

Unsigned editorials are the opinion of the Portales News-Tribune’s editorial board, which consists of Editor David Stevens. All other views expressed on this page are those of their authors.