Prisoner Frees Himself Using Keys Guard Left Behind

Man Caught Nearby After Escaping Courthouse Lockup

January 30, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Ever misplace your keys only to find them hanging from the lock in the door? Well, it happens to jailers, too.

But when the turnkey loses his keys, he can also lose his prisoner. Just ask the security guard whose job is on the line following Monday's short-lived prisoner escape from the county courthouse in Annapolis.

"What we have is a breach of written security procedures," countySheriff Robert G. Pepersack said yesterday. "We anticipate there will be disciplinary actions."

Pepersack said the incident began about 4:45 p.m., when the guard escorted two prisoners -- handcuffed and shackled by the ankles to each another -- to a door leading from the basement lock-up at the county Circuit Court. They waited inside for a sheriff's deputy to open the door of a van waiting to take the prisoners back to the county detention center.

But the guard apparently grew impatient and opened the door to see what was taking the deputy so long, Pepersack said. The guard then closed the door -- leaving the keys in the lock -- and walked to a nearby security desk to see what had happened to the deputy.

The guard was gone for only a minute or two, Pepersack said, but that was enough time for one of the two prisoners to act on what he must have considered a gift from heaven. Sherrell E. Walker, who had just been found guilty of assault with intent to rob and was ordered held pending sentencing, used the guard's keys to unlock his cuffs and shackles and unlock the door, the sheriff said.

He then stepped forth into the free world. The other inmate, resisting temptation, stayed put. Minutes later, Steven M. Sindler, an assistant state's attorney who had prosecuted Walker that day, was startled to see a defendant who was supposed to be on his way to jail walking two blocks from the courthouse.

"I'm driving up Cathedral Street just before West Street and there he is, just strollingalong. I couldn't believe it," Sindler said. "He was with another guy, just walking along. He was as calm as can be."

Sindler said he followed the man, then flagged down an Annapolis police officer on patrol near Calvert and Clay streets. County government workers waited outside a parking garage while police, with help from a dog named "Charlie," looked for the man. They found him about 6:30 p.m., hiding ina stairwell.

Walker, 27, of Severn, was charged with escape.

Pepersack said the guard remains on duty pending an administrative hearing, where he could be suspended or fired. He refused to identify the guard, but said the man had been working for the department for about two months.

"His background shows him to be a good and reliableperson, and up until now, he has been," he said. "It was a human error."

Since last May, Pepersack said, his department has employed six civilian security guards who man the metal detectors at the courthouse doors and act as turnkeys in the lock-up. He said no policy changes are planned.

The escape came little more than a month after four inmates tried to escape from their cell at the courthouse lock-up.The inmates had to be moved from a cell because a toilet was broken.After being moved, the men opened a cell door and smashed apart their leg irons, Pepersack said.

Five deputies suffered minor injuriesduring a struggle with the prisoners, but they recaptured the men before they could get out of the holding area, police said.

Pepersack said his department and the state police are trying to determine how the men opened the cell door. The incident prompted the sheriff's department to install screened doors with electronic locks to allow parts of the lock-up to be closed off, he said.

The 160-year-old courthouse building can be blamed for some of the security problems, Pepersack said. For example, the county courthouse being planned for Calvert Street in Annapolis will have an enclosed sally port area, unlike the open sally port through which Walker apparently escaped.

Pepersack said, "We're making do with a building that wasn't built up tomodern security standards."

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