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Witnesses Unheeded During O.C. Jailbreak : Mistakes and Missed Opportunities Delayed Sheriff’s Department Action Nearly Half Hour

Times Staff Writer

Four eyewitnesses to the Orange County jailbreak in November each contacted authorities within minutes, but because of mistakes and missed opportunities, nearly half an hour of crucial time passed before officers sounded the alarm, an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s Department has found.

The first witness called the emergency number 911 to report a man taking off jail clothing near a house barely 100 yards from the County Jail in Santa Ana. But despite his pleas for an immediate police response, an initially hostile Santa Ana police dispatcher questioned the story and at one point refused to send police until the caller gave his name.

“Ah, just come over,” the caller begged in a transcript of the call reviewed by The Times. By the end of the call, the suspect had left.

The suspect was murderer suspect Eleazor Gonzales, who escaped with four other inmates Nov. 20 by descending from the jail rooftop with knotted bed sheets. One escapee is still at large.

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In the scene described by witnesses, the men then sprinted from the jail, some wearing only their undershorts and some stripping their orange jail jumpsuits as they ran. One man even stopped to ask a woman which way his associates had run, according to the internal investigation, which was provided to The Times by the sheriff’s deputies union.

Police Got Call

Santa Ana police received a call at 7:32 p.m., but it wasn’t until 7:52 that the lieutenant in charge of the jail that night was first notified of the escape. At 8:01, records show, Lt. Jerry Kreitz gave the order to lock down the jail.

In a memo later, Kreitz complained about the delay, saying those first minutes “may have been very critical minutes.”

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These new disclosures come at a time when the Sheriff’s Department is already defending its controversial handling of the escape. The descriptions of the routine operation inside the jail that have come to light recently depict disorganization and a lack of supervision.

Sheriff Brad Gates has blamed the entire escape on the two deputies assigned to the rooftop recreation area where the inmates pried open a chain-link fence and rappeled from the top of the four-story building.

Gates said the deputies were watching television and reading magazines--against department rules--when the escape occurred. He also said they failed to conduct a required search of the prisoners and miscounted the inmates as they left the roof.

One deputy, who denied most of the charges but acknowledged miscounting the inmates, was fired. Sheriff’s officials said the second deputy was suspended, but they would not say for how long.

In the officers’ defense, the deputies union countercharged that the blame was the sheriff’s administration--not the deputies--because it failed to take steps that could have thwarted the escape.

As proof, the union revealed several damaging internal memos and offered to let reporters review more than 500 pages of documents and 24 hours of taped interviews from the Sheriff’s Department’s internal investigation.

Union Received Report

The union received the internal report because of its role in defending the deputies.

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The records show that the second notice of the escape was at 7:35 p.m., when a man stopped a deputy who was outside the jail on his way to dinner. The man reported that someone had just run from the jail in inmate clothing. But the deputy later told investigators the man was known as somebody “not playing with a full deck” and so he didn’t believe the story.

The deputy checked the parking lot and then continued on to dinner after telling a clerk to take the man’s statement. The deputy, who was suspended for 10 days, told investigators the only reason he checked the parking lot was “because the one thing you always do in law enforcement is cover your ass: CYA.”

In a third report about 7:40 p.m., two women told sheriff’s deputies they saw four men running from the jail, two wearing orange clothing and two in shorts. Deputies concluded that the orange clothing was jail-issued jumpsuits. The women said the fourth man to run past them even stopped to ask which direction the others had gone.

Their report was delayed, however, because deputies had to find a Spanish-speaking clerk to translate their story.

Sheriff’s personnel first realized the escape might be genuine when an officer taking the other man’s statement overheard the womens’ report being translated. The officer then notified a sergeant, who relayed the message to Lt. Kreitz.

‘Looks Legit’

“It looks like it’s legit,” the records quote the sergeant as telling Kreitz. “We got too many people out here telling us this.”

Sheriff’s Lt. Richard J. Olson said the department could not comment on any of the new disclosures because it is prohibited by law from releasing information from the internal investigation. Olson also said the department would not comment because it expects the deputy who was fired to appeal his dismissal.

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The most damaging disclosure for the Sheriff’s Department so far is a memo the union released last month that said authorities knew inmate Michael Taylor was planning an escape almost 2 months before he and the four other inmates broke out.

The Sept. 29 memo said Taylor told an outside contact to hide some clothes for him near the jail. But the contact turned out to be an informant for the Huntington Beach police, which notified the Sheriff’s Department.

Taylor, who was the mastermind of the break, is still at large and is believed to be responsible for a recent $450,000 jewelry robbery in Chicago, which included the kidnaping at gunpoint of the store owner.

In defending his department, Gates said last month that classification officers who determine the security risk of each inmate reviewed the notice of Taylor’s escape plans but still decided that he should remain in medium-security housing.

Taylor’s classification papers, however, are included in the department’s internal investigation, and there is no mention of the tip that he was planning an escape.

In fact, the records show that Taylor’s classification was downgraded after he claimed to be targeted for attack inside the jail by other high-security inmates.

Security Reduced

“I (reduced Taylor) . . . to medium-low security due to the fact his present demeanor is not compatible with maximum-security inmates despite his extensive jail time and criminal past,” the classification officer wrote last August.

The investigation records also include a transfer form for Taylor that was given to the Sheriff’s Department last July by the Huntington Beach police. A box on the form indicating “high risk” is checked and there is a scribbled notation: “If given opportunity, will escape.”

In one other disclosure included in the internal investigation, authorities found that the escape was aided by two ladders that were inadvertently left leaning against the jail wall by construction crews.

The inmates had planned to rappel three stories from the roof onto a lower landing and then jump about 40 feet to the ground. But construction crews doing renovation work on the jail left two ladders between the ground and the lower landing.

Santa Ana Police Lt. Robert Chavez said 911 calls within the city limits go directly to the Police Department. But even though the department is likely to be the first agency contacted by witnesses to a jail escape, there is no hot line or procedure for immediately coordinating efforts with the Sheriff’s Department.

Eleven minutes after the 911 call about the escape, Chavez said, the Police Department dispatched a patrol car to the scene. Three minutes later, police officers called the Sheriff’s Department.

Eventually, Chavez said, three other patrol cars arrived in the area.

Didn’t Know About Break

“There was about a 10- to 11-minute delay partly because we only received one call from a man who wanted to remain anonymous,” Chavez said. “At the time, we didn’t know there was a jailbreak.”

Chavez also said the dispatcher who handled the call was a trainee, who has been reassigned to a less demanding job in the Police Department since the escape. He said that the reassignment was not because of the call about the escape and that there was no discipline issued because of the way that call was handled.

“She didn’t like (the job). She didn’t feel she was cut out for it,” Chavez said. “It’s a tough job.”

Chavez said he could not comment on how the 911 caller was treated because the department no longer had a copy of the tape or the transcript of the conversation.

In interviews with the investigators, Dayton Delcambre, the deputy in the parking lot who was later suspended, and other officers said the witness who spoke to Delcambre has frequently stood outside of the jail for hours at a time over the past several months. The man’s presence is “common knowledge” to the jail deputies, who said he purportedly is protesting his arrest on unknown charges several months ago.

Delcambre said he first went inside the jail and had another officer accompany him to the parking lot for a quick check. The only light the two men had was a small penlight. When they didn’t see anything, the second officer went back to the jail with the witness and Delcambre continued on to dinner.

Robert MacLeod, general manager of the deputies union, said Delcambre was not available for comment. However, the deputy told the investigators:

“I believe the steps I took in walking the perimeter . . . and looking for anybody out there was following up on the report, trying to substantiate it before I went to anything further. Calling a Code 9, (jailbreak) you know, with . . . nothing more than a report from someone I believe is unstable would have been irresponsible.”

The investigators then asked whether Delcambre should have let a sergeant decide if calling an emergency was irresponsible.

“Well,” he said, “that’s a decision that someone with 20/20 hindsight can make.”


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