by David M. Reutter
On June 13, 2017, a pair of Georgia prisoners being transported from the Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville to the state’s Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson breached a partition on the prison bus. Within seconds they overpowered and disarmed two transport guards before killing them. A manhunt ensued, ending when the prisoners surrendered 260 miles away in Tennessee; during the 60-hour escape, they allegedly stole four vehicles, burglarized two houses, tied up an elderly couple in their home and led police on a high-speed chase.
Donnie Russell Rowe, 44, and Ricky Dubose, 24, were serving sentences for separate armed robbery and assault convictions. Dubose had been sentenced to up to 20 years, while Rowe was serving life without parole. The pair were once cellmates, and officials speculated that’s when they planned their escape.
The transport bus was carrying 33 prisoners. According to video recovered from the vehicle, Rowe and Dubose quickly went through the door that separated the prisoners from the guards. It appears the door was unlocked, or the pair was able to unlock it or had surreptitiously wedged it open when they boarded the bus. Both appeared to be out of their leg shackles and at least one was already out of the handcuffs they were supposed to be wearing.
Within seconds of breaching the door and entering the driver’s area, gunfire erupted. Law enforcement investigators said Sgt. Christopher Monica, 42, and Sgt. Curtis Billue, 58, were disarmed of their 9mm pistols, shot and killed. Rowe or Dubose then kicked a window out of the bus to make their escape; once outside, they carjacked a Honda civic, leaving its driver on the side of the road after they took his cell phone. The other 31 prisoners remained on the bus until law enforcement officers arrived.
“I saw two brutally murdered corrections officers, that’s what I saw, I have their blood on my shoes,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. “[The fugitives are] dangerous criminals, and we need the public’s help in locating these vehicles and these individuals.”
About 30 miles away, between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., a house was burglarized. Only clothing and food were taken, leading police to suspect Dubose and Rowe were responsible. It is believed they stole a 2008 Ford E-250 pickup from a “quarry-type place” in Madison, Georgia. The truck was later ditched in Moore County, Tennessee, where another car was stolen. That car was subsequently left along a state highway in Bedford County, and covered with grass and branches.
From there, the escapees climbed a hill on foot and forced their way into the home of an elderly couple.
“They wrestled with the man and got control of him and threatened [both of] their lives,” said Bedford County Sheriff Austin Swing. “[They] tied the man up with a belt and put socks on his hands where he couldn’t use his fingers.”
Over a three-hour period in the couple’s home, Dubose and Rowe helped themselves to food, shoes, clothing and jewelry before leaving in the couple’s Jeep Cherokee. A Rutherford County Sheriff’s deputy tried to pull the vehicle over without knowing it contained the fugitives. That set off a 10-mile chase on I-24 south of Nashville, during which several other vehicles were struck and the pair shot at the deputy. The chase reached speeds of 100 mph before it ended when Dubose and Rowe crashed and lost their weapons. They ran into the woods.
A short time later, a homeowner saw the escapees attempting to steal his vehicle. He called the police and a neighbor, and they armed themselves. The neighbor, Patrick Hale, said that as he was backing out of his driveway, Dubose and Rowe took their shirts off and started waving.
“My vehicle looks very similar to a police cruiser,” Hale said. “For some reason, they started to surrender and lay on their stomachs in my concrete driveway.”
He and the neighbor who first noticed the escapees held them at gunpoint until law enforcement officers arrived. The reward for the capture of Rowe and Dubose had reached $130,000 by the time they surrendered.
They waived extradition to Georgia; upon their return, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen Bradley announced in September 2017 that he would be seeking the death penalty. Sheriff Sills said he was “happy” and “elated” at their recapture.
“But I’m still tremendously sad about these [dead] officers,” he added.
In July 2017, both an internal Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) investigation and an external review jointly conducted by several state law enforcement agencies concluded that Sgt. Monica and Sgt. Billue were victims of their own negligence, having violated numerous security measures that left Dubose and Rowe able to overpower them, take their weapons and kill them.
First, the officers failed to find a toothbrush Rowe had smuggled aboard the bus – which may have been used to wedge open the gate to the vehicle’s prisoner compartment. They also did not double-lock the prisoners’ restraints; as a result, Dubose was out of his handcuffs within two minutes after boarding the bus, freeing Rowe and several other prisoners, too.
Not securing the gate to the prisoner compartment was “the single greatest point of failure,” the report continued. But Monica and Billue also failed to adhere to policy in two other ways: They left their weapons in storage boxes, rather than wearing them, and did not wear their bullet-resistant vests. The bus had departed before sunrise without the warden’s pre-approval, another deviation from policy.
During a stop at Hancock State Prison to pick up more prisoners, both officers got off the bus and left the prisoners unguarded – during which time Rowe managed to ransack the officers’ lunches and wedge open the unlocked partition gate. The partition remained unlocked once the bus resumed its trip, apparently unnoticed by the transport guards.
After receiving the report, GDOC Commissioner Greg Dozier announced new procedures for prisoner transports, including 1) adding a chase vehicle and expanded video surveillance to all transport buses; 2) requiring transport guards to complete periodic refresher training; and 3) assigning a duty officer at each facility to ensure procedural compliance, using a pre-departure checklist that includes keeping the prisoner compartment locked.
“I am determined not to allow an event like this to take place again,” Dozier stated.
Rowe and Dubose face charges of murder, felony murder, escape and hijacking a motor vehicle, which remain pending.
Sources: Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times, Daily News, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, www.wsbtv.com, Chicago Tribune, www.cbsnews.com
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