ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The two New Mexico prisoners who escaped a fortified transport van picked the locks on their handcuffs with some sort of wire, but it’s still unclear how they could have slipped away without two prison guards noticing, officials said Monday.
The escape of inmates Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah last week has raised concerns about security within the state’s financially strapped corrections system, and questions linger over how the two escaped and began fleeing about 200 miles toward Albuquerque before authorities knew they were missing.
Both men were apprehended and taken back into custody over the weekend — with authorities arresting Cruz early Friday evening near the University of New Mexico and Clah surrendering outside an Albuquerque apartment complex a day later.
At a news conference Monday, state officials said an investigation was ongoing into missteps that allowed for the inmates’ escape and who helped them during their time on the run.
“They took advantages of weaknesses,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said. “They waited for the right time, and everything lined up for them.”
Kassetas said he expected to make more arrests in the case this week, but he left some questions about the escape unanswered, citing the ongoing investigation.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE PRISONERS’ ESCAPE?
Cruz and Clah were being transported Las Cruces when they fled the prison van during a fuel stop in the small desert town of Artesia around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Authorities discovered the men were missing around 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
Investigators believe the men picked their handcuffs, but it’s still not known how they broke free from their leg irons, ditched their white prison jumpsuits and changed clothes, and got a ride headed north to Albuquerque, a roughly three-hour drive. The two made it to an Albuquerque hotel by 2:30 a.m., authorities said.
Kassetas wouldn’t say what investigators know about that trip to Albuquerque. He also declined to say what surveillance video from the gas station may have revealed, indicating that disclosing the details could hamper the investigation.
WHAT ARE AUTHORITIES SAYING ABOUT THE ESCAPE?
Authorities believe the escape was planned and that the men received assistance, although Cruz and Clah told reporters as they were cuffed and marched into a police station that they didn’t get help. A look into whether missteps by corrections staff were involved in allowing for the escape is a part of the state police probe, but Kassetas said there hasn’t been a decision to bring charges against the guards.
Authorities have been looking into who helped the men in their time on the run, and they expect arrests this week in the case, Kassetas said.
He also confirmed that Cruz met his family members while free.
WHAT ARE THE PROTOCOLS FOR TRANSPORTING INMATES?
Standard precautions require guards to search inmates and the transport vehicle at each stop for clandestine tools or weapons, said Gary Klugiewicz, a former inmate transport trainer with security consultant Vistelar in Wisconsin. He said officer fatigue and complacency can undermine security at the end of long trip.
State Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel declined to answer whether the guards who were in charge of transporting Cruz and Clah followed the department’s specific protocols and procedures, saying the information was privy to the state police investigation. What’s known is that the guards — a man and woman — worked 18 hours the day Cruz and Clah escaped.
The two guards have been placed on administrative leave. Marcantel also has suspended all prisoner transports since the escape.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE MEN’S TIME ON THE RUN?
State police say Cruz’s two days of freedom included visits with family and his girlfriend before he was caught near a busy Albuquerque intersection Friday. At least twice, police responded to possible sightings of Clah in Albuquerque before a woman reported he was hiding in her apartment. Clah said he “had fun” during his days on the run.
All of the state’s prisons remain on lockdown as authorities investigate the escape, Marcantel said.
Cruz and Clah have been interviewed by investigators and have been returned to the state penitentiary, where they are being held in a maximum security unit. State police will consult with prosecutors about additional charges for Cruz and Clah once their investigation is complete.