Inmate hurt in escape sues sheriff for injuries

January 14, 2008|By DeeDee Correll | DeeDee Correll,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- Scott Anthony Gomez Jr. made his first break from the Pueblo County Jail two years ago.

He pushed up a ceiling tile, hoisted himself up into the ventilation system and climbed until he reached a roof. Then he shimmied down the wall on bedsheets fashioned into a makeshift rope.

Caught two days later, he ended up back in his cell.

The next time, Gomez again pried loose a ceiling tile and vanished into the guts of the building. But as he tried to rappel on bedsheets down the side of the 85-foot building, he fell.

Now the would-be Houdini is suing the sheriff in this southern Colorado county, saying authorities caused his injuries by making it too easy to fly the coop.

"Defendants ... did next to nothing to ensure that the jail was secure and the plaintiff could not escape," according to his lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money.

Filed this month in federal court in Denver, the case has attracted considerable attention statewide and on the Internet, mostly from people chuckling and fuming at Gomez's legal efforts.

"It doesn't pass the straight-face test," said Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor, who took office one day before Gomez's second escape one year ago. "He is the criminal here, not the sheriff. He is the one who committed the crime."

Taylor declined to discuss specifics in the lawsuit but said Gomez's two escapes - and another jailbreak during that period - meant that jail security was a priority during his first year on the job. Built in 1978, the five-story jail had weaknesses, including a sub-par door-locking system, Taylor said.

The ability to remove ceiling tiles was another problem, one exacerbated by overcrowding, the sheriff said. Intended to hold about 189 inmates, the jail routinely housed 300, requiring the use of bunk beds. "You give them access to the ceiling because of the second bunk," Taylor said.

These were weaknesses Gomez, now 22, detected when he arrived at the jail in 2006.

Convicted of a weapons-related charge in 2004, he had served two years in a state prison. Not long after his release, he was arrested for violating his parole and sent to the Pueblo County Jail.

There, his lawsuit said, the prison staff abused him, kicking and beating him, spraying him with pepper spray and shooting him with Taser guns. Fearing for his life, he said, he was forced to hatch his first plot to escape.

When Gomez was returned to the jail, he said he warned prison officials of escape routes, according to his complaint.

Gomez said his warnings went unheeded, and in January 2007 - maintaining continued abuse by guards - he decided to escape again, with another inmate.

The jail made it easy, he said. Its cell doors could be opened easily and ceiling tiles could be removed, "giving plaintiff an open invitation to escape," according to the complaint.

On Jan. 10, 2007, Gomez and his fellow inmate left their maximum-security cells and opened a ceiling tile in the shower. They climbed through the hole and found a shaft that led to the roof. When Gomez tried to descend on a makeshift ladder of bedsheets and mattress covers, he fell 40 feet, seriously injuring himself.

In the year since, the sheriff has spent $1.2 million to improve security, including welding shut the ceiling panels and overhauling the door-locking system.

The jail has had no escapes since making those changes, Taylor said.

He said Gomez's lawsuit came after officials asked the court to order Gomez to pay back $64,000 in medical expenses.

Gomez - whose lawyer did not return a call seeking comment - no longer is held at the Pueblo County Jail. Now serving a sentence on his conviction for escape, he is in a cell at the Colorado State Penitentiary, considered the most secure in the state's prison system.

DeeDee Correll writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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