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New Jersey Prisoners’ Jail Escape Leads to Firings and Suicide

About an hour into his shift on December 15, 2007, Union County, New Jersey jail guard Rudolph Zurick discovered that prisoners Jose Espinosa and Otis Blunt were missing.
Zurick immediately took steps to have the jail locked down. When it became apparent that Blunt and Espinosa were long gone, Zurick requested to go to the hospital. Although he had sustained no physical injuries, the guards’ union policy entitled him to a medical visit due to the trauma of the event. Zurick later received psychological counseling and retained a lawyer.

Espinosa, 20, and Blunt, 32, had escaped by digging through cinder block walls in their cells, covering the holes with pictures of bikini-clad pinup girls in an apparent homage to a well known escape scene from the movie Shawshank Redemption. The prisoners left a note thanking Zurick for his assistance. “Thank you officer Zurick for the tools needed. You’re a real pal. Happy holidays,” they wrote.

The note, embellished with a picture of a smiley face and a middle finger salute, was evidently meant to mock the guard. However, he apparently took it too personally. On January 2, 2008, the day that Zurick was to talk to investigators about the escape, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Jail officials later stated that at no time was Zurick suspected of helping the two prisoners escape.

It was originally believed that Blunt and Espinosa left the jail on December 15, 2007. However, a subsequent investigation revealed that Espinosa might have escaped the previous day. The pair had stuffed sheets under the blankets on their bunks to make it appear they were asleep. After crawling through the hole they made in the outside wall, the two prisoners made their way to a third-story roof and over a 25-foot fence topped with razor wire.

Investigators discovered that Blunt had waited eight hours before following Espinosa in his dash for freedom. Espinosa injured his ankle when he jumped the fence, but still managed to remain missing for almost four weeks. Then, on January 8, 2008, he was arrested in a basement apartment less than a mile from the jail after the police were tipped off. Also arrested was Espinosa’s girlfriend, Odalys Cortez, 19.

Footprints outside the jail showed that Blunt had traveled in the opposite direction from Espinosa once he was outside. He went through the razor wire instead of over it, sustaining cuts. After taking a taxi to the bus station and a bus to Texas, Blunt made his way to Mexico. He was featured on America’s Most Wanted.

In a strange twist, the Rev. Al Sharpton contacted New Jersey authorities and told them he had been in touch with Blunt and was tying to convince him to turn himself in. Union County prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow criticized Sharpton’s involvement. On January 8, 2008, Sharpton made a trip to Mexico but returned without securing Blunt’s surrender; nevertheless, the following day authorities took Blunt into custody in Mexico City.
Ironically, Blunt, a New Jersey resident, was captured in Mexico while Espinosa, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was caught in New Jersey.

When the dust finally settled, the Union County jail’s warden was transferred and his top assistant fired. Additionally, five guards were suspended until the investigation was complete. Suspended were Sgt. Christopher Sloan, Sgt. Joseph Simpson, Sgt. Richard Griswold, and guards David D’Amore and Patrick Kennedy; they were accused of neglect of duty and failure to supervise.

Prosecutor Romankow described operations at the jail as “miserable” and “dysfunctional.” He said guards routinely ignored rules regarding cell searches and head counts. Investigators claimed that Blunt and Espinosa’s cells had not been searched in over two months. “If the corrections officers on that unit had done their job, there would have been no escape,” said Romankow. He also noted that had Zurick not killed himself, he would have faced administrative discipline.

After his capture, Blunt claimed that he gave Zurick $1,000 for the tools used to break through the cell walls. Everyone, including Romankow, insisted they did not believe that Zurick had any part in the escape. They speculated that his suicide resulted from his perfectionist attitude and the fact that he had recently lost both his parents. Zurick was known for his impeccable manner of dress, his military demeanor and his spit-shined shoes. Still, the timing of his suicide, on the day he was to meet investigators, raised some eyebrows.

Blunt was facing trial for robbery and weapons offenses when he escaped. Espinosa was awaiting sentencing on a manslaughter charge. Both were indicted on escape charges and face an additional three years. The five jail employees who were placed on leave pending an investigation agreed to accept six-month suspensions in lieu of losing their jobs.
D’Amore and Kennedy returned to work on May 22, 2008, while Sgts. Griswold, Sloan and Simpson resumed their duties on August 4.

Prisoners at the Union County jail are no longer allowed to put posters or pinups on the cell walls.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Star-Ledger, New York Daily News

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