10 Seized, 4 Hunted in Mass Jailbreak : Prisons: Five accused murderers were among inmates who escaped from Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic. Residents awakened by searchers’ loudspeakers.
In what authorities were calling the county’s largest jailbreak, 14 inmates--including five accused murderers--escaped from a maximum-security jail at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic early Sunday, but authorities recaptured 10 of them within hours.
As night fell, only four, including two suspected murderers, had eluded authorities in the rugged hills surrounding the 2,800-acre facility in northern Los Angeles County.
The inmates scaled a razor-wire fence with socks covering their hands. Four were captured within minutes of the 3:15 a.m. jailbreak. Six more, some of them wearing only underwear after discarding their orange jail jumpsuits, were captured by 5 p.m. within half a dozen miles of the jail, after an intense manhunt.
The inmates--awaiting trial for crimes ranging from murder to carjacking--escaped through a large hole in the ceiling of a 96-person holding cell, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Springs. Deputies at a watch station inside the jail were diverted by a fight in an adjacent dormitory, he said.
“There was a hole in the ceiling from a previous disturbance that was patched with a piece of metal,” Springs said. “Apparently they were (able) to remove that and enlarge the hole, and from there they were able to access the roof.”
Castaic residents were awakened before dawn by blaring loudspeaker announcements as 120 sheriff’s deputies from across the county swarmed over the area with helicopters and bloodhounds, warning residents and making door-to-door checks near the jail.
“Be on the lookout for seven men who escaped from the Wayside Honor Rancho this morning,” one deputy told residents over his car’s public address system as he drove the streets about 6:30 a.m., not yet knowing that more inmates had escaped. “They are wearing orange jumpsuits. They are considered dangerous. Report any suspicious people immediately to the Sheriff’s Department.”
Such warnings spooked residents such as John Rogers, 33, who lives about half a mile from the jail. He spent Sunday morning checking the locks on his doors and windows. “Normally I come out and get the paper and then leave my garage door open while I run in and out,” he said. “Not this morning. I’m just constantly looking over my shoulder.”
He was not alone. About 2:30 p.m., authorities cornered two of the escapees after Lisa Galvin, 40, discovered them hiding under a car in front of her home on Firebrand Drive, just across the Golden State Freeway from the jail.
“I was tugging the car cover and it was tugging back,” Galvin said. “I thought it was someone’s dog.”
Authorities arrested murder suspect Kyeron Bennett, 20, of Los Angeles, who was wearing shorts and a denim shirt, and carjacking suspect Mario S. Mendez, 25, of Los Angeles.
Earlier Sunday, four inmates were caught as they tried to scale the jail’s perimeter fence, Springs said. “Two of our officers assigned here were doing a perimeter check and they actually saw the inmates scaling the fence, and they were able to apprehend some of them,” he said.
A fifth inmate, Mario A. Cortez, 22, of Los Angeles, suspected of murder, was caught early Sunday afternoon on the Pitchess grounds.
A group of three was captured in the Stevenson Ranch area early Sunday evening: murder suspects Daniel Vences, 22, of Los Angeles; carjacking suspect Guillermo V. Godinez, 19, of Lynwood, and narcotics suspect Manuel A. Olmedo, 22, of Los Angeles.
Still at large were murder suspects Eric M. Reed, 24, and Luis A. Galdamez, 28; carjacking suspect Walter R. Padilla, 22, and narcotics suspect Fernando Arroyo, 24, all of Los Angeles.
Since 1985 there have been three escapes from maximum-security jails at Pitchess, whose four jails house minimum- to maximum-security inmates. Eight of the nine inmates who escaped in those jailbreaks were caught.
On Sunday, authorities searched the Magic Mountain and Castaic Junction areas with three helicopters and five police dogs. Civilian climbers scaled nearby canyons and reported in on ham radios.
Authorities investigated dozens of tips from residents who heard barking dogs or other unusual noises near empty houses. They also established watch posts at major roads and intersections, searching every car for the inmates.
Springs said it is highly likely that the inmates planned the escape, and some may have been able to arrange getaway cars in advance, he said.
The complex from which the inmates escaped is about 40 feet from a 25-foot-high razor-wire fence, which the inmates scaled using towels and wearing socks as gloves to avoid cuts. They descended the fence using a knotted bedspread.
Several large blood spots, torn clothing and other debris were scattered inside the fence. Outside, deputies found blood spots in the brush leading west away from the jail, as well as the discarded socks and a crude shank knife.
Visiting day at the jail was canceled so deputies who normally escort visitors could help with the search. That angered many visitors who got up early to make long drives to the jail.
“If they were doing their job right they should not have let the people out in the first place,” said Debbie, 35, a Riverside woman who asked that her last name not be used. She awoke at 4:30 a.m. so she could visit her fiance.
Out-of-towners staying in the communities near the jail were unnerved by the escapes. At 7:30 a.m., about a dozen sheriff’s patrol cars converged on the Castaic Inn, where a group of 28 young people from Reno were practicing for a martial arts competition at the inn.
Deputies had received a tip that four suspicious men were hiding in a pickup truck near the inn. “I went in (to the truck) to go get my belt and three cops came in with their guns pointed at me,” said Melissa Miller, 12. “I thought they were going to take me away. I was so scared.”
The escape was the main topic of conversation among customers and employees at Gallion’s Castaic Corner, a gas station near the northern boundary of the jail. “What bothers me is I want to know how so many of them managed to escape at once,” said Jennifer Cleveland, 17, a cashier at the station.
Her co-worker, Bambi York, 19, said she did not fear the inmates showing up at the store. “So long as all the police are driving around, I feel OK,” she said. “I don’t think they’d come here because they’re expecting other people to be here.”
Castaic resident Brian Foraker, 36, said he was not overly worried about inmate escapes until higher-security facilities opened at the jail in the late 1980s--with little fanfare announcing them.
“It was a hush-hush thing,” he said. “I was a little upset. Nobody wants a prison by their house.”
* ESCAPE NOT FIRST: Three jailbreaks from special units at Pitchess have occurred since 1985. A3
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