On November 30, 2009, a maximum-security Texas state prisoner who was shackled to a wheelchair in the back of a transport van while being transferred between prisons pulled out a pistol, commandeered the van, handcuffed the guards together and escaped. He was recaptured eight days later.
Arcade Joseph Comeaux, Jr., 49, was in solitary confinement at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where he was serving three life sentences, when prison officials decided to move him to the Stiles Unit in Beaumont. During a contact visit a decade earlier, Comeaux, who was confined to a wheelchair, pinned his wife against a wall and stabbed her 17 times with a homemade shank. He also stabbed another prisoner’s visitor who tried to intervene.
That got him two of the life sentences. They were consecutive to his other life sentence, which he received for aggravated sexual assault of a child. He also had prior convictions for rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, burglary of a building and indecency with a child.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Comeaux had been using a wheelchair for a decade. Perhaps that is what lulled Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) guards into complacency, even though prison officials had videos showing him walking around in his cell. As the transport van was about to leave the Estelle Unit early in the morning, Lt. Monte S. Henson was supervising guards Lance Waldo and Matthew A. Smith, who had been assigned to accom-pany Comeaux.
Several hours into the trip, Comeaux produced a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol and yelled to the guards in the front of the van, “I’ve got a gun. I’m serious.”
Apparently needing to prove his seriousness, Comeaux fired one round into the dashboard. He then ordered Waldo to keep both hands on the wheel and Smith to keep his hands on the arm rests. Comeaux forced them to drive away from the highway, where he handcuffed the guards together in the rear of the van, took their pistols, a shotgun and a uniform, and drove to Baytown, Texas. There he abandoned the van and walked away. The guards were discovered in Baytown, which borders Houston, Comeaux’s hometown. The wheelchair and smuggled pistol were left in the vehicle.
A total of $30,000 in reward money was quickly offered for Comeaux’s capture, and local schools were placed on lockdown. State troopers, the Texas Rangers and a Department of Public Safety helicopter joined in the search.
Eight days later, a barefoot and bedraggled Comeaux was spotted sleeping in a parked school bus. Within hours he was taken into custody at a nearby business, still wearing a TDCJ guard uniform and carrying the guards’ pistols and ammunition. Refusing to talk to investigators unless community activist Quanell X was present, Comeaux spun a tale of having been aided by a vast criminal conspiracy both inside and outside the prison, but his sorry state when he was caught belied that story.
He then told investigators that he worked for a prison gang, earning money by pushing drugs, until he could afford to buy the pistol from gang members. The pistol was supposedly brought into the prison by a guard, passed to another guard and then given to a third employee who delivered it to Comeaux three weeks before the escape. Comeaux also claimed to have witnessed a prisoner being beaten to death by guards. According to the TDCJ’s Inspector General, none of those claims checked out. Comeaux was allowed to lead investigators to the place where he had stashed the shotgun and shells, just 1,000 feet from the Houston neighborhood where he was recaptured.
Comeaux’s short-lived escape resulted in disciplinary action against at least nine prison staff members. Waldo and Smith, both 19-year TDCJ veterans, were allowed to retire in lieu of punishment. Lt. Henson, who had worked for the TDCJ for five years, was recommended for dismissal for improperly supervising the placement of shackles on Comeaux before the transport. Michael Price, a six-year TDCJ veteran who was a guard at Estelle when Comeaux escaped, was suspended without pay for recklessly endangering others by not adequately searching Comeaux when he was removed from his solitary confinement cell. And TDCJ employee Cynthia M. Allen, who had worked at Estelle for 10 months, was charged with “establishing an improper relationship with an offender” after it was discovered she had placed phone calls to Comeaux’s ex-wife at his behest.
The TDCJ also recommended that Major Thomas Hutt and guard David Delaney be fired;
Delaney was accused of delivering notes and contraband to prisoners, including Comeaux.
Further, two senior officials at the Estelle Unit, warden Alfonso Castillo and assistant warden Thomas Hunt, elected to resign effective the end of January 2010 rather than face disciplinary action for failing to ensure that policies were followed related to security searches and restraints.
“Our primary mission is to protect the public,” said TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons. “And when we fail in that mission, we do take it very seriously, and we take the steps to ensure that type of incident doesn’t occur again.”
State Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, called for an independent review of TDCJ policies and procedures to prevent contraband smuggling. He also recommended the creation of an independent agency to screen prison employees and visitors.
“I want the problem fixed. I want accountability from the top to the bottom within TDCJ,” Whitmire stated. “And I think it is unfortunate that you need an episode like the Comeaux matter to have the administrators take it as seriously as I have for over a year.” Senator Whitmire has advocated for stronger security measures in Texas prisons after he was threatened by a death row prisoner who called him on a contraband cell phone in October 2008. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.29].
Sources: www.examiner.com, www.cnn.com, Houston Chronicle, www.cbs11tv.com, FOX 26 News
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