Shortly after 1:00 P.Mon June 5, 2000, Steven Whitsett jumped into a hovering chopper piloted by his longtime friend, Clifford Burkhart, a student pilot with 31-hours flying time on only his second solo flight. The tiny two-seat chopper bounced once and then barely cleared a 15-foot double razor wire fence before flipping out of control and crashing in an orange grove about 100 yards beyond the fence. Whitsett, 28, and Burkhart, 23, fled on foot. Investigators found two empty holsters in the crumpled helicopter and immediately launched a massive manhunt.
In 1994 Whitsett was a psychology student at Nova University. While conducting academic research at a juvenile sex offender treatment center, he apparently befriended several of the juvenile detainees, performed sex acts and took nude photos of a 15-year-old boy. He pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual battery on a child by a person in custodial authority, and two counts of lewd, lascivious or indecent assault on a child.
After serving 4 ½ years of an eight year prison sentence, Whitsett was released in September 1999 and immediately transferred to the Martin Treatment Center (MTC) under Florida's civil commitment statute (known as the Jimmy Ryce Act).
The center has a capacity of 125 and currently holds 105 former prisoners. A larger, 600-bed facility is under construction on the grounds of Florida's DeSoto Correctional Institution, scheduled to open in July 2002.
Public hysteria in reaction to a "sexual predator" on the loose caused five local schools to cancel their bus service. School officials held students on campus and notified their parents that they needed to be picked up.
One local resident said she kept her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter inside the house until Whitsett was captured. "I didn't even go out for a walk this morning," Jane Huntsinger told the Post. "It was very nerve wracking knowing [Whitsett] was out there."
After the escape, concerns were raised about security at MTC. The center, which is operated by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), is adjacent to Martin Correctional Center, a DOC prison. Security inside the treatment center is provided by employees of Liberty Behavioral Healthcare, Corp., a private Pennsylvania company that contracts with DCF to run the facility.
Four DOC guards from the nearby prison were patrolling the MTC perimeter when the escape occurred. But they were not armed because the detainees are technically "residents" under the civil commitment statute rather than "prisoners."
"We are not allowed to use deadly force inside or outside [the center]," MTC director Robert Briody told the Post"We couldn't have shot at him anyway if we had guns." As a result of the escape guards at MPC are now armed.
Two weeks before the breakout, Whitsett shipped most of his belongings home. The weekend leading up to the escape he gave most of his clothes away to fellow "residents," bragging that he'd won his appeal and was going to court Monday to be released. The morning of the escape he even got a farewell haircut.
"In hindsight, that maybe should have risen the staff's suspicions," said a treatment center spokesperson.
At 1:15 P.M. Monday afternoon, Whitsett scaled a 10-foot fence adjacent to the center's basketball and volleyball courts to reach the recreation field where Burkhart was hovering the 1993 Robinson 22 two-seat chopper. Razor wire had been removed from atop that fence three weeks earlier because Whitsett and other MTC "residents" had complained that basketballs and volleyballs popped when they hit the razor wire, officials said.
Minutes after the chopper whisked Whitsett clear of the recreation yard, MTC employees searched his bunk and footlocker. They were empty. No clothes. Not even a toothbrush.
Whitsett and Burkhart were captured after two fruit pickers spotted them running toward a canal and alerted authorities. A sheriff's helicopter rushed to the canal and landed after detecting ripples on the surface. Two heads popped out of the murky water and the 25-hour chase was over.
Martin County Sheriff's Lt. Ron Cucchiara said Whitsett initially refused to put his hands up or come out of the canal.
"I told them I wanted to see some hands," Cucchiara told the Post. "[Whitsett] told me he didn't have anything to lose. They told me they wouldn't be taken, and they wouldn't come out of the water."
Cucchiara fired two warning shots into the water. He says Whitsett begged him to kill him and spare him a long prison term. But the two fugitives, after a whispered exchange, finally dropped their 9mm handguns into the water and crawled to the canal bank where they were cuffed.
Burkhart had $10,098 in cash and a key to an Okeechobee hotel room in his pocket. The two apparently planned to land the helicopter in a field not far from the center. A rented white mini-van was parked nearby. They were to drive to the Okeechobee hotel. Waiting there were barbering tools, fresh clothes and two train tickets from Jacksonville to New York City. They planned to start a new life together and blend into the Big Apple.
Whitsett was charged with escape and Burkhart with aiding an escape. But Assistant Public Defender John Hetherington, assigned to defend Burkhart, said he questions whether the charges will withstand legal challenges.
"They're trying to punish them as criminals under a civil statute," Hetherington said, referring to the Jimmy Ryce Act. "We will be trying to say they are entitled to equal protection as anyone else charged under civil laws such as the Baker Act [for psychological commitments] or the Marchman Act [for substance abuse commitments]. Someone held under [those other acts] who walks away from a treatment center cannot be charged with escape," he said.
Hetherington said that appeals courts will likely be sorting out the issues for years to come"It's all brand new," he said of the escape charges. "Not to my knowledge has this happened in any other state that has these laws."
Source: Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, Tampa Tribune
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