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Fall Escapes Plague Local, State Agencies in Houston Area

by Michael Rigby

During a two week period in late 2005, prisoners in the Houston area escaped from all levels of custody. One prisoner escaped from the city jail, another vanished from the back of a prison van, and a third--a twice convicted death row prisoner--walked unimpeded out of a county jail. All three escapes were clearly due to human and procedural errors, but officials in each case refused to take responsibility.

Lawrence Darnell Thomas, 36, spent about three hours on the run following his escape from the Houston Police Department jail. Thomas was arrested around 4:30 p.m. on November 16, 2005, for an alleged carjacking. Upon arrival at the jail, Thomas broke free and ran when the cop pulled him from the backseat of the patrol car. He had slipped out of his handcuffs on the way.

Using dogs and a helicopter, police apprehended him about 8:30 p.m. Thomas, who police described as thin but muscular, was returned to the jail with handcuffs on his wrists and a double set on his ankles. Police Captain Dwayne Ready would not say whether the handcuffs had been applied improperly the first time. But it seems likely. Used properly, handcuffs are effective restraints.

Similarly, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) arent saying how a state prisoner escaped from a prison van under the noses of two guards. Instead, hes being compared to Houdini.

Carlos Kidd, 25, escaped on October 31, 2005, while being transported from the Ramsey One unit in Rosharon to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Kidd had claimed he swallowed razor blades and taken pills. Though he was the only occupant in the van--separated from two guards in the front only by a latticed metal screen--he wasnt discovered missing until the van arrived at the hospital.

Kidd, who was serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated robbery, was arrested in nearby Dickinson about nine hours later. He was still wearing his white prison uniform.

Along the way, Kidd had somehow liberated himself from his handcuffs and leg shackles, said prison officials. He then removed the back window, crawled out, and replaced it--all undetected. Its baffling, said TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. There were no stops other than those that were necessary for traffic, such as at stoplights at intersections.

Obviously theres more to the story, but for weeks prison officials refused to say how the investigation was progressing. However, in a December 1, 2005, interview with FOX26 News, Kidd disclosed his secrets. His escorts had stopped to buy hamburgers, also buying him one. Before resuming their trip, the guards removed Kidds handcuffs and leg shackles so he could eat comfortably. Kidd used the opportunity to slip out the unbarred back window.

Kidd, who claims he was raped by a former guard on another unit, says he was only trying to escape the abuse he has been subjected to in prison. [See PLN, August 2005 for more on Texas prison rapes.] Its unknown if the guards were disciplined or fired for the escape.

At the Harris County Jail (HCJ) in downtown Houston, deputies involved in the high-profile escape of Charles Victor Thompson did receive discipline, but only after officials were forced to take responsibility. One deputy was eventually fired and 8 received minor punishment ranging from letters of reprimand to 10 days suspension.

Thompsons escape from HCJ on November 3, 2005, set off a nationwide manhunt. He had been transferred from death row to the county jail for re-sentencing ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On October 28, 2005, a jury reaffirmed his death sentence for fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

The day after his escape, Thompsons prison ID and the free-world clothes he had worn out of the jail were discovered across the street. Jail officials initially blamed everyone but their own security. I think thats the clearest indication we have so far that somebody is helping him, even if its just somebody dropping off a change of clothing, said Lieutenant John Martin, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriffs Office.

After Thompsons capture in Shreveport, Louisiana, three days later, a clearer picture emerged. The only help Thompson really had was lackadaisical security, short-staffing, and complacent jailers.

Thompson, 35, told investigators he had smuggled his prison ID, a handcuff key, and the clothes he wore to his re-sentencing into the jail. On the day he escaped, Thompson met his lawyer in an attorney booth. The guard who escorted him--and who was later fired--failed to lock the door or properly restrain him. When his attorney left, Thompson shed the handcuffs and removed his bright orange jumpsuit, under which he wore civilian clothes.

Thompson then left the unlocked attorney booth and bluffed his way out of the jail by claiming to be with the Attorney Generals office and flashing his prison ID with the word offender taped over. Thompson was recaptured, drunk and penniless, without incident.

Faced with a public relations nightmare, officials were finally forced to admit fault. There is no good way to spin this, Martin said. The point is there were multiple errors on the part of our personnel. This is 100% human error that could have been prevented and it wasnt.

According to others, short-staffing also played a role, though officials deny it. They are so shorthanded, said Richard Cobb, an attorney with the Fraternal Order of Police. They claim theyre not, but whos kidding who? Cobb further said he was told that on the day of the escape no one was available to escort Thompson to the attorney visitation booth. At the 2:00 p.m. shift change a deputy escorted Thompson to the booth then left for the day.

James Rytting, the attorney who spoke with Thompson in the booth, said Thompson had called his firm, Phillip Hilder & Associates, seeking representation for an appeal. Rytting said that when he left he told guards he was done with Thompson, a signal that Thompson was ready to be returned to his cell. Thompson was discovered missing an hour later.

To make matters worse, the few guards who are on duty dont always do their jobs. According to one longtime jailer who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by his co-workers, some guards nap and play video games while on duty. He also said many guards regularly leave their posts unmanned well before their shifts are over. The allegations ring true. In July 2005, the state decertified the jail for a second time because of overcrowding and inadequate staffing.

Following the escape, attempts were initially made to cast suspicion on the German anti-death penalty group Alive. Theyre not suspects, but they did visit him [in Harris County] before his escape, and they are opposed to the death penalty, so were looking at them, said Marianne Matus, spokeswoman for the Houston office of the U.S. Marshals Service. Nothing suggested the group aided Thompson, and they were soon cleared. Apparently in Harris County--the nations death penalty capital--anyone who doesnt support state-sanctioned murder is a potential suspect.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, AP, Reuters,, KPRC, Shreveport Times, USA Today, FOX26 News

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