Report — Briefly stolen key helped in New Mexico jailbreak

Associated Press

CLOVIS, N.M. — An agent investigating last month’s escape of eight jail inmates says prisoners probably stole a key left in a door by a corrections officer doing plumbing work at the time, then returned it before anyone noticed.

Four inmates, including a convicted killer and a murder suspect, remain at large after escaping from a hole cut in the roof of the Curry County jail in Clovis on Aug. 24.

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

Chandler blamed the escape on "complacency" and "a failure to pay attention to detail" and said changes at the jail are needed.


The report, released Tuesday, found the most likely explanation was that two days before the escape, an inmate took a key that had been left hanging in the lock of a door where two detention officers were fixing a clogged toilet. The door was to an area housing pipes, and the key opened similar compartments elsewhere in the jail.

Two inmates told agent Dan Aguilar of the district attorney’s office 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 officer who unlocked the door told the agent he didn’t think he had left the key in the door but wasn’t certain. He said the scenario the inmates described "was possible," the report said.

The eight inmates escaped by climbing into an unlocked plumbing compartment and cutting a hole in the roof.

Four were caught within a week. 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 "credible tips" that have placed some of the fugitives in Amarillo and Plainview, Texas, and Clovis. He said the escaped inmates should be considered armed and some may be together.

Chandler said investigators believe the tools the inmates used to cut through the roof were fashioned out of scraps of metal they found in a plumbing compartment, 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 weren’t working and hadn’t been for several months, allowing inmates to run free between the pods.

No criminal charges were planned. Aguilar said in his report that he had been unable to identify the inmates who aided in the escape.

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.

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