Jail-bound woman put on bus headed for N.Y.

February 01, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

In a paperwork mix-up that has federal and state officials blaming each other, a woman recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling a deadly heroin substitute to Baltimore was picked up from jail by federal marshals, chauffeured to the Greyhound station and put aboard a bus home to New York.

"I think the government even provided a bus ticket," said a chagrined U.S. Marshal Scott A. Sewell yesterday of the premature release of Gladys Sanchez, 60, on Jan. 15 -- about three weeks after her sentence was handed down.

"That's amazing. Are you serious?" asked Stuart R. Blatt, Sanchez's court-appointed attorney, when informed yesterday she was free. "It was clear to everyone she was being sentenced to 10 years."

Officials said they discovered the mistake by chance only on Friday, when a lawyer representing a co-defendant of Sanchez mentioned in court that he had heard she was gone.

The state police fugitive squad immediately contacted New York authorities and began a search to bring her back to face the original sentence and a new charge of escape -- on the grounds that she raised no objection when the marshals escorted her to freedom.

Sanchez was arrested by Baltimore police at Penn Station last March 29 with more than a pound of fentanyl powder in her handbag, according to court testimony. A powerful anesthetic used to treat chronic pain and known on the street as "China White," fentanyl was blamed in the overdose deaths of 30 Baltimore drug users last year.

In August, still in jail, Sanchez was indicted by a federal grand jury and accused along with 40 others, including her son, of being part of a drug ring that distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin and fentanyl in Baltimore weekly between 1990 and mid-1992.

A U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican background who speaks little English, Sanchez claimed initially that she carried the handbag from New York to Baltimore at the request of her son, Frankie Sanchez, 28, and had no idea it contained drugs, according to Mr. Blatt.

But faced with the possibility of a no-parole sentence in federal court, Sanchez agreed to plead guilty to drug conspiracy charges and accept the 10-year state sentence, since she would have a chance at parole after about three years, her attorney said.

TTC Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown accepted the plea bargain Dec. 23, and Sanchez was returned to the Baltimore Detention Center to await transfer to a state prison.

As part of the plea bargain, federal drug charges against Sanchez were dropped. U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin signed the papers dismissing the charges Jan. 4, according to a source familiar with the case.

What happened next was in dispute yesterday, following a morning report on WBAL-TV that Sanchez had been released by mistake.

Federal marshals, apparently acting on the basis of Judge Smalkin's dismissal of charges and unaware of the state sentence, collected Sanchez from jail Jan. 15, said Mr. Sewell, the marshals' boss.

"Then, we actually took her to the bus station," he said.

Mr. Sewell said "a preliminary look" by his office indicated that Detention Center officials failed to give the marshals a state detainer, a document showing that Sanchez had a state sentence pending. Such a detainer is routinely faxed by the jail to the marshal's office or handed to marshals when they pick up a prisoner, he said.

But Barbara A. Cooper, spokeswoman for the Detention Center, said the marshals should have known about the detainer.

"We had the commitment papers," she said. "When the marshals picked her up, we were confident routine procedures were followed," and the papers handed over.

Both the jail and the marshal's office began investigations of the matter.

"I'm going to look at it when I get to work tomorrow," Mr. Sewell said. "If we messed up, we'll go get her. Her freedom will be short-lived."

And if Sanchez is not waiting at her last known address to be returned to jail?

"We'll find her. We got Dontay Carter, didn't we?" he added, referring to federal marshals' role in the manhunt that led to the swift capture last month of Carter, a convicted murderer who jumped from the window of a judge's bathroom during a break in his trial.

Sanchez is not the first city jail inmate to win freedom without having to bother to escape. On Christmas Day, 1991, an inmate -- also held on federal drug charges -- got out by masquerading as another prisoner who was scheduled for release.

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