Inmate escapes 'Supermax' for a moment of freedom He is recaptured within a half-block

March 09, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An armed robber, who had been moved to the state's maximum security prison because of previous escapes, escaped yesterday from the so-called "Supermax" in Baltimore and was recaptured minutes later a half-block away, a prisons spokesman said.

He was the second prisoner to escape from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center and the first since security was strengthened after a 1991 escape stunned officials.

John Lloyd Wells, 37, formerly of Middle River, climbed over the prison wall on Madison Street at 3: 18 a.m. and was immediately spotted by a correctional officer, who drew his weapon and ordered Wells to stop, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Wells started down Madison Street and the guard chased him, Sipes said. Across the street, two Baltimore police officers, who were outside the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, heard the guard's shout, drew their weapons and joined the chase, Sipes said.

Wells, who is serving a life sentence, stopped in a rutted lot next to the prison and across from the booking facility and was recaptured, Sipes said.

Wells was treated at the prison infirmary for cuts he suffered when he climbed through the loops of razor wire on the prison wall, and he was segregated from the prison population yesterday, Sipes said.

"You have individuals like Wells who are locked into a cell and have all kinds of time to plan an escape," Sipes said.

He said officials were surprised by the extremes to which Wells had gone to escape, but noted, "Desperate inmates serving life will take desperate measures."

Guards in yellow rain ponchos carrying high-powered weapons were stationed around the East Baltimore prison yesterday as officials began an investigation of the second escape from Supermax since it opened in January 1989. The facility houses the state's most dangerous prisoners.

Sipes said investigators would search every Supermax cell for contraband. Correctional officers said they expected the shakedown to turn up weapons.

Wells, who is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 145 pounds, cut the grate on his 22-inch by 6-inch third-floor window, removed the glass and wriggled free, Sipes said.

He used what Sipes described as a "homemade rope," which was still dangling from the window in the morning rain. Sipes would not say what the rope was made from, but it was orange in color as are prison bedsheets and jump suits.

Had he dropped straight down from his window, Wells would have landed in a paved courtyard more than 30 feet below. But he swung back and forth to gain momentum to enable him to grab the top of the 30-foot-high prison wall, about 25 feet away, Sipes said. Wells then climbed through the looped razor wire at the top of the wall and to his short-lived freedom.

What Wells used to cut the bars and how he obtained the tool are key questions for correctional officials, who strengthened security at Supermax after the first embarrassing escape.

Top correctional officials met at the prison yesterday, Sipes said. He would not discuss what security measures are in place to alert guards to a prisoner trying to escape and whether they worked yesterday.

"There will be a security audit," Sipes said.

Sipes said Wells was convicted in 1981, 1982 and 1983 of armed robberies and other charges. Serving 15 years for armed robbery, he escaped July 6, 1983, from the medium-security Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown and went on a crime spree that included an armed robbery of the Hazelwood Inn in Rosedale that left a janitor paralyzed by a bullet. He was recaptured after five months of freedom.

On Sept. 26, 1985, Wells escaped from the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore but the date of his recapture was not readily available yesterday. He tried to escape from the House of dTC Correction Annex in Jessup on Sept. 14, 1996, and as a result was moved to Supermax, Sipes said.

Wells' escape yesterday was similar to the Nov. 30, 1991, escape of convicted killer Harold Benjamin Dean, who was picked up in a car and driven to West Virginia. Hacksaw blades -- guards said it takes a tool at least that strong and sharp to cut the window bars -- that had been smuggled in were found in a search of Dean's cell. Relatives were suspected of helping him flee and, though five were charged, the charges were dropped.

Dean was recaptured 10 months later in Ohio. The Dean incident shocked officials, who considered the 2-year-old, $21 million prison escape-proof.

The 226 Supermax prisoners are considered the most dangerous in the state prison system. They spend at least 22 hours a day locked in individual cells, and they exercise alone. If they behave, they are permitted such privileges as radios, paper and pencils.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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