Escape artist not unique

Some crime suspects are especially skillful in finding ways to unlock their way to freedom

February 03, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,sun reporter

Harford County Detention Center inmate Terrence Kasses Washington went into the back seat of a Crown Victoria with arms and legs bound in chains. He came out of the car running.

He has been arrested again and again on charges that include bank robbery and car theft, and his slippery ways - he's confounded jailers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Maryland - have made him something of a regular on America's Most Wanted. More than a week after his latest escape, Terrence Washington has left a trail of stolen trucks from Bel Air to Alabama.

And he dropped off a set of handcuffs along the way.

Breaking away from professionals whose sole mission is to keep prisoners imprisoned, who use restraints and locks and cages to do just that, might seem a wondrous feat. But experts say a certain brand of criminal has always been able to find a way to freedom.

"People like him just seem to be able to put these pieces together," Steve Katz, supervising producer of America's Most Wanted, said of Washington, who is to be featured on the show again tonight. "If 400 other guys tried that, 399 of them, it would not work for them."

Ingenuity? How about the murder suspect in North Carolina who hid a handcuff key in his throat, coughed it up at the right moment and was soon on the loose. Or the murder suspect in North Dakota who greased his wrist with lip balm and slipped out of handcuffs when his interrogators aren't looking.

Ed "Hacksaw" Jones, a prolific robber from West Virginia who is believed to have broken free more than a dozen times during a span of two decades, claims to have once used part of a pen to pick the lock on his cuffs. He then jumped out of a van going 40 mph.

"Personally, I never considered escape a crime," Jones told The Miami Herald in a 1982 profile. "If you catch a wolf in a trap, he'll gnaw his own leg off to get away. You put a man in a cage, it's human instinct to want to get out."

Washington - an amateur rapper whose chest and abdomen are tattooed with dollar signs ands the words "CASH" and "Only God Can Judge Me" - had complained of stomach pain Jan. 24 at the Harford County detention center in Bel Air. Authorities say he was secured in handcuffs, leg irons and a belly chain for the six-minute, pre-dawn trip to the nearest hospital. When officers opened the back door at the hospital, Washington headed for the woods.

The last trace of him was in Auburn, Ala.

Law enforcement officials point out that inmates bent on escape have no shortage of time, not to mention motivation, to plot their moves. As Kurt Smith, a police lieutenant in Minot, N.D., says: "It's pretty much their full-time job to scheme and plan and plot."

Smith is one of the few officers still in his department who was around for what is probably that area's most brazen escape. In 1988, police called in a man named Richard McNair for questioning in a shooting death during a robbery. Police handcuffed McNair to a chair near a desk. Officers were coming and going, and when no one was looking, McNair pulled a stick of lip balm out of the desk, lubricated his wrists and slid out of the cuffs, Smith said.

He headed for the front door, even though several officers stood in his way, Smith recalled.

"Pretty much like a run for the end zone, he hit one at the door, knocked another one out of the way," Smith said.

Police found him later that day, after he fell out of a tree in front of a house, Smith said.

McNair is on the loose again. He escaped from a federal prison last year.

Murder suspect Eddie Ellis was being transported to a doctor's appointment in Wilson County, N.C., last year when he managed to free himself from handcuffs while in the back of a van. Police found him hours later hiding underneath a house, said Maj. John Farmer of the Wilson County sheriff's office.

Police were so shocked that he had been able to slip out of his cuffs that they locked him in a cell and asked him to do it again.

"We shackled him, handcuffed him, double-locked the cuffs," Farmer said. "In about less than a minute he was out of them."

Ellis' secret: A universal cuff key hidden in his throat. Having spent most of his life in jails, Ellis had figured out a way to keep the key in his throat so that he could pass inspections of his mouth and then spit it out at the right time, Farmer said.

Prison breaks may be the stuff of movies and television drama, but experts say the day-to-day chore of moving inmates from place to place - from jail to courthouse or hospital, say - is particularly risky.

"That's where inmates most commonly look for that opportunity," said Gene Atherton, a former director of Colorado prisons who has written a book on prison security. "They're typically out in the open."

Atherton said that escapes happen only when the system breaks down. In instances where a prisoner is being transported, he said, an escape should never happen if the handcuffs are double-locked and used along with leg irons and a belly chain, and if the prisoner is monitored constantly.

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