Guard at Jessup says she warned of escape plans

Second officer denies that alarm sounded

union cries cover-up

June 26, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Three captains at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup failed to act on an explicit warning two weeks before an escape May 18 that armed robber Byron L. Smoot was planning to break out, a corrections officer has told authorities.

Corrections Commissioner William W. Sondervan confirmed yesterday that the officer has submitted a written report to prison officials detailing her warning to her superiors. Sources identified the officer as Bernadette Thomas.

Meanwhile, a corrections officer who was fired for failing to react to an alarm is asserting that it did not go off. In an interview with The Sun, Nina M. Polley said a microwave motion detector that should have sounded the alert was not turned on when Smoot and convicted murderer Gregory L. Lawrence fled by scaling a prison fence.

Sondervan discounted Polley's account, but said Officer Thomas' allegation is under investigation. A Division of Correction spokesman, Dave Towers, said the agency is also looking into allegations that Thomas was harassed by superiors as a result of her report.

If the allegations are true, Sondervan said, "you better believe that corrective actions will be taken."

The escape ended two days later with the recapture of the men. Two women -- a former Patuxent Institution psychologist and Lawrence's girlfriend -- have since been charged with aiding the inmates.

Prison officials fired Polley June 4, saying the 31-year-old Air Force veteran ignored or failed to respond to alarms and radio calls alerting her to a security breach.

Polley, who was staffing a guard postin the prison's Tower 6 that night, insists that she heard nothing from the control center during the escape.

Support for assertion

Sondervan stood by the decision to fire Polley, whom corrections officials have assigned primary blame for letting the inmates escape. But the prison chief acknowledged that some other officers on duty that night have supported Polley's assertion that the microwave warnings did not go off.

Sondervan said, however, that other witnesses reported the alarms did sound. "There was conflicting testimony," he said.

Polley's account was supported by another officer, who spoke with The Sun on the condition that he not be identified. "At no time did I hear the microwave go off -- not at all," said the officer, who said he was closely monitoring radio transmissions that night.

Polley, one of two prison employees fired because of the escape, is challenging her dismissal with the help of Teamsters Union Local 103. Thomas F. O'Neill, the union's assistant director of organizing, said Polley is being made a scapegoat by prison officials.

"They did everything they could to cover up their own mistakes and divert the public's attention away from the way the agency was conducting itself," O'Neill said.

While Sondervan would not reveal details of Officer Thomas' report to authorities, O'Neill said she warned Capt. Anthony Dawson in the presence of Capts. Robert Grimes and Donald Vernon that Smoot had bragged that he would escape over the fence. The captains brushed off her warning and failed to follow up on it, O'Neill said.

Neither Thomas nor the captains could be reached for comment.

Human error blamed

On June 15, Sondervan told a legislative subcommittee that "human error" -- not systemic failure -- was to blame for the escape.

Without naming her, he put particular blame on Polley, saying he could not explain how the officer failed to react to numerous alarms and radio calls instructing her to check the sector where the escape was taking place.

Polley, a former military police officer, said she decided to come forward after reading an account of Sondervan's testimony, which she characterized as "a bunch of lies."

Polley, who received multiple commendations for her service during the Persian Gulf war, took exception to a statement by Sondervan that "maybe she just froze" at her post while the inmates escaped.

"You don't carry an M-16 for six years and freeze," Polley said. "People are trying to cover their own butts. I have no reason to lie, because I was doing my job."

Polley said her job at the time the escape is believed to have happened was to focus her attention on the prison yard, where 300 to 400 inmates were being herded back into the prison.

The escape took place near the unstaffed Tower 1, which would have been to Polley's right side and behind her as she scanned the yard. Polley, a probationary employee with eight months on the job, said she was never informed that Tower 1 was unstaffed on Tuesday nights.

Polley said the first call she received came at about 8: 30 p.m., several minutes after the escape had been reported. She said that a supervisor asked if she had seen anything and that she said no.

The fired officer said the allegations that she ignored alarms were made by a corrections sergeant who was trying to shift blame for his own mistakes that night.

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