Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : Escapee From Lancaster State Prison Is Captured

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole was captured early Wednesday morning about five hours after escaping from a recently opened maximum-security state prison in Lancaster.

The escape, the second since the facility opened in February, came as the community is considering backing plans for a second prison in Lancaster. The City Council is scheduled to hold a community meeting Saturday to discuss the possibility.

Eric Rene Johnson, 23, was sentenced to prison in October, 1992, for first-degree murder in a carjacking case, said prison spokesman Kenn I. Hicks. However, Johnson has been in the Lancaster prison only since Aug. 13.

He was present for a routine prisoner count at 6 p.m. Tuesday but was discovered missing at a 9 p.m. prisoner count, Hicks said.

Johnson was spotted about 2 a.m. by prison officials at a convenience store parking lot at 15th Street West and Avenue K, which is about five miles from the prison, Hicks said.

"He was sitting on the ground near some phones when he was spotted by a prison patrol unit in an unmarked car," Hicks said. "When the officers got out of the car, he started to run. The officers had to tackle him to the ground before they could take him into custody."

Authorities are still investigating how Johnson escaped. Hicks said that information probably would not be released, however, because it would be a "breach of security."

Tuesday's escape was the second since the 4,200-inmate-capacity state prison opened Feb. 1. On July 3, two men walked away from a minimum-security barracks located outside fences that surround medium- and maximum-security cellblocks, Hicks said.

The prisoners, one serving a two-year term for burglary and the other a four-year sentence for robbery, were discovered missing at a midnight prisoner count. The men were recaptured within a few days in the San Gabriel Valley.

Hicks said the minimum-security barracks are designed for inmates on work crew programs who have less than 30 months remaining on their sentences, did not injure anyone in their crimes and have no escape history.

The barracks, which are not locked because of fire regulations, are surrounded by a seven-foot chain-link fence but do not have barbed wire.

Last month, the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce endorsed a second prison being built in the city, saying it would provide jobs and other benefits to the community.

A combination prison and inmate reception center is under discussion that would replace a long-debated plan for a state prison in East Los Angeles. It was to have been a companion facility to the Lancaster prison, but opposition by East Los Angeles residents killed the project last year.

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