Manhunt on for inmates who scaled prison fences

Two felons at large after Jessup escape

bloodhounds lose trail


Hundreds of police officers were hunting last night for a murderer and an armed robber who escaped in broad daylight from the medium- security state prison in Jessup by sliding past an unmanned watchtower and scaling two fences, one topped with razor wire.

Yesterday morning, blood was visible on the fence where Byron Lester Smoot, 38, and Gregory Lee Lawrence, 39, leaped to freedom. Smoot was found to be missing at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to prison officials, launching a manhunt for the first escapees from the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup since 1986.

Security procedures and staffing at the prison are being reviewed, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The unstaffed guard tower where the men escaped is next to the prison's main entrance. Prison officials said it was the only tower unstaffed of the six surrounding the prison. The entrance tower is staffed only when inmates have visitors.

"Inmate movement within that area was supposed to be extremely limited," said Sipes.

Although prison officials said sirens sounded to alert neighbors to the escape, some complained that their first warning was search helicopters flying overhead. Both inmates had tried to escape before from other prisons; officials didn't say why they were not held in a maximum-security facility.

The inmates had to cross a 12-foot-high fence and a 15-foot-high fence topped with three layers of razor wire. Once over the fences, they apparently walked, in daylight, about a quarter-mile through the parking lot into woods. The men's stature -- Lawrence is 5 feet 2 inches tall and Smoot is 5 feet 5 inches -- might have helped in their escape, said a prison spokesman.

Bloodhounds traced the scent of the two men -- both from Baltimore -- to a telephone booth less than a mile away near Route 175 and Dorsey Run Road, where the trail ended. They are believed to have had help escaping, state police said.

The correctional officers union blamed the escape on cutbacks. "It is beyond comprehension that those posts would not be manned," said Bill Bolander, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the bargaining unit for correctional officers.

In August, the union sent a memo to prison officials asking that guards be posted at all six towers.

Smoot was the first inmate to be reported missing. He entered prison in 1995 to serve a 29-year sentence for 11 armed robberies in Anne Arundel County. He has a criminal record dating to 1983 that includes armed robbery, burglary, theft and battery. This escape was his second: He fled a prerelease program in 1993 and was recaptured three days later.

State police said he was last seen wearing blue nylon sweat pants, a gray T-shirt and white tennis shoes.

Lawrence was noted missing "several hours later," according to Sipes. He was last seen wearing bluish-green medical scrubs at the prison, state police said.

"Except in high-security situations inmates wear their own clothing, approved from a list," Sipes said.

Prison officials would not say what time or where the two men were last seen.

Lawrence is serving a life sentence. He has been in jail since 1978, when he was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting and robbing a North Baltimore man. Anthony Kirk Gee, an aircraft mechanic for the National Reserve, was shot three times by Lawrence in January 1978. After the killing, Lawrence stole Gee's shoes. In 1992, he had attempted to escape from Patuxent Institute, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that rehabilitates inmates.

Gee's family said Lawrence's escape brought back painful memories of Anthony's death. Gee's mother began ailing immediately afterward and has never recovered, they said.

"She's a strong woman, but it put a toll on her," said William Wright, 21, Anthony Gee's nephew. "That is the last thing she wants on her mind now."

Wright said they were worried about what kind of danger Lawrence poses to society, and whether he will threaten the family.

"My only concern is that they catch him, and his frame of mind," he said. "The fact he was planning on getting away says to me he might be more dangerous."

Wright said he was worried that Lawrence would come back to their neighborhood, where they lived when Gee was killed, but "I think if you believe God will protect you, nothing can harm you."

State Police are checking the escapees' phone records and visitor logs to determine who the two have been corresponding with during their incarceration. Both men came to the facility last fall. Prison officials would not say why they were transferred or from where.

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