A woman with a pistol forced a chartered helicopter to land in a prison compound Thursday, scooped up a killer and two armed robbers and flew away 90 seconds later after a gunfight in which one guard was wounded.
In a daring escape reminiscent of the Charles Bronson movie "Breakout," the overloaded chopper lumbered off the ground amid a rain of bullets and barely cleared the 12-foot-high fence around Perry Correctional Institution.
The chopper landed four miles away and the woman and the fugitives, described by police as violent and "very dangerous," sped away in a silver sedan.
Major Highways Watched
Law enforcement officers launched an intensive air and ground search for the fugitives and FBI agents were watching the major highways leading to Georgia and North Carolina.
Bill Owens, owner of the Palmetto Helicopter Co., said he was surprised that the overloaded chopper managed to get off the ground at the prison.
"It was a three-passenger helicopter, but had five people in it. How it got off the ground, I don't know," Owens said. "If it hadn't been a cool day it wouldn't have got off the ground."
Owens said an unidentified auburn-haired woman in her 30s chartered the aircraft shortly after 10 a.m., pulled a gun on the pilot after takeoff and ordered him to fly to the prison, about 15 miles from Greenville.
5 Prisoners Ran to Copter
Authorities said the helicopter approached the prison from the side opposite a single lookout tower and landed in an area between a prison dorm and a perimeter fence, where five inmates from a group of 200 ran toward it.
"The pilot said 'I can't take that many' and two either jumped or were pushed off," state Department of Corrections spokesman Hal Leslie said.
Prison guards opened fire on the chopper, but were unable to prevent it from taking off. An unidentified guard was wounded and hospitalized in stable condition during an exchange of gunfire. He reportedly suffered a gunshot wound to the mouth.
Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown said the wounded guard pursued the men and was trying to pull them off the helicopter when he was hit by a single shot from a small-caliber handgun. Tower guards fired at the helicopter with shotguns and pistols as it departed but apparently missed, Leslie said.
Sheriff's Lt. Tommy Smith said the chopper was on the ground at the prison about 90 seconds.
Corrections officials identified the escaped inmates as James Rodney Leonard, who was serving a life term for murder; William Douglas Ballew, who was serving 23 years for armed robbery, and Jesse Glenn Smith, who was serving 40 years for armed robbery.
The $140,000 Hughes 300-C helicopter landed behind a business building about four miles from the prison. The fugitives took the keys from pilot Larry Green and told him to run. Green dashed into the building and telephoned police.
Owens said the woman called the company, which runs flights for businessmen, photographers and joy riders, earlier in the week to set up the flight.
"She said she always wanted to ride in a helicopter and her mother was going to pay for it as a Christmas present," Owens said.