5 Inmates Flee New Prison Designed to Curb Escapes

Times Staff Writer

Four federal prisoners remained at large late Monday, a full day after they rappelled down the side of the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center and sprinted to freedom in the first breakout from a new jail designed in part to quell a rash of escapes. A fifth inmate was apprehended downtown.

The five men sliced through the heavy metal mesh lining an eighth-floor recreation balcony shortly before 10:30 p.m. Sunday and made their way down the outside wall with a rope made of bedsheets, authorities said.

A guard who witnessed the escape gave chase, and one of the men, Lester McDougherty, 31, was caught about five hours later a few blocks from the detention center, spokeswoman Lyn Croasmun said. McDougherty had apparently fallen behind the others because of a broken leg, Croasmun said.

Range of Charges

U.S. marshals were still hunting late Monday for the other four, all awaiting trial or sentencing on charges ranging from bank robbery to weapons violations. Still at large late Monday were James David Wilson, 31; Kevin Greene, 32; Robert Garrison, 43, and Victor Age, 31.

Age had recently remarked to the prosecutor in his case that the detention center, which opened seven month ago as an alternative for pretrial inmates to the lower-security federal prison at Terminal Island, was far from escape-proof.

"He was bragging about how the facility was not a secure facility. I'll be damned," said the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam. "He said, you know, that the type of people we're putting in federal custody these days, that the facility was not designed for the hardened street criminals who know how to break out of prisons."

Age, who was to be sentenced July 17, was facing the possibility of two life terms--and a minimum sentence of 15 years--for his conviction under the federal armed career criminal statute.

The Santa Ana resident had twice been convicted of battering custodial officers while in state prison at San Luis Obispo and had previous convictions for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon when he was arrested in possession of three assault rifles, Gillam said.

Wilson, a transient, had agreed to plead guilty to four counts of bank robbery stemming from a series of 14 holdups at South Bay banks. He faced a maximum of 20 years in custody.

Garrison had pleaded guilty to armed robbery of a Wells Fargo Bank in Long Beach where he and an accomplice fled with $11,500 before being cornered by police at the end of a high-speed chase.

Greene was convicted in February on two charges of unlawful weapons possession. Prosecutors said he was arrested during an attempted robbery of a Buena Park taco stand in 1987.

Narcotics Charge

McDougherty, a Los Angeles resident, was awaiting trial on narcotics charges.

Croasmun said it was not known whether the escapees were armed, "but they're considered dangerous."

The five men were on an authorized recreation outing on the open-air balcony, which is open to inmates until 11 p.m., Croasmun said. Apparently using hacksaw blades, the men sliced through the heavy metal mesh that encloses the balcony and slipped down to a similar balcony on the sixth floor. From there, they climbed down to the third floor and then to the ground.

Within moments of the escape, police detained a man who claimed he had been overpowered by the inmates, who he said then fled in his late-model black Ford pickup truck.

David Stanton, chief deputy U.S. marshal, said the man was among four who were parked in another vehicle near the detention center Sunday night. Authorities were suspicious because the man, who has not been identified, had a friend or relative who was an inmate at the detention center.

"We were concerned about why he was down there at that time of night," Stanton said. "We tend to disbelieve (him), but we can't prove it at this point."

After teams of federal marshals unsuccessfully combed downtown near the jail Sunday night, new teams were dispatched to conduct surveillance and interviews of friends and family of the escapees.

"We have quite a few contacts and information that we've been able to develop," Stanton said. "Most of it just takes time."

Opened in Mid-December

The $36-million, 10-story Metropolitan Detention Center opened at 535 N. Alameda St. in mid-December. It was designed to house federal prisoners who are awaiting trial or sentencing before they are assigned to federal prisons across the country to serve out their terms. It now houses about 950 prisoners.

At the time the facility opened, authorities said it would provide a more secure alternative to housing pretrial inmates at the Terminal Island Federal Prison, a medium-security facility that was plagued last year with a rash of escapes and attempted escapes.

After Sunday's escape, prisoners were confined to their cells and guards conducted searches that yielded the hacksaw blades believed to have been used to cut the wire mesh.

"We are shaking down the entire institution, floor by floor. We're looking for anything that does not belong, anything that looks out of the ordinary. We're looking for contraband, just as a security precaution," Croasmun said.

Criticism Renewed

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, an opponent of plans to build a new state prison near downtown, said the escape renews fears that urban prisons, which are not large enough to contain such security features as perimeter fencing and guard towers, cannot safely house inmates.

"This really touches on the whole issue of the downtown L.A. prison," said Gerry Hertzberg, Molina's chief legislative deputy. "Here's a case where we have a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, and something in the security system was faulty. It certainly raises concern about placing another prison in the downtown area, when it doesn't have to be (there)."

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