Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

To hide in plain sight, prison escapees register as felons

ORLANDO — Within days of strolling out of prison without a hitch, two convicted killers freed by bogus paperwork went to a jail about 300 miles away and registered as felons, records showed. They were even fingerprinted, photographed and filled out paperwork to apparently keep up the ruse.

Authorities are now searching for Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who were mistakenly freed from a Panhandle prison within the last month. Both men were serving life in prison but were let go when authorities said forged documents duped the Corrections Department and court system and reduced their sentences to 15 years.

"We're looking at the system's breakdown. I'm not standing here to point the finger at anyone at this time," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men. He said he believed they were still in Central Florida.

The release led prosecutors and prison officials to review their records to make sure no one else had been mistakenly freed. The corrections agency also changed its policy to require officials to verify all early releases with judges.

Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail in Orlando on Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered there three days later.

Felons are required by law to register. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.

By registering, Jenkins and Walker likely drew less attention to themselves.

"If there's no hit that comes back, they're free to go," said Isaiah Dennard, the Florida Sheriff's Association's jail services coordinator.

If felons do not register, a warrant is put out for their arrest, Dennard said.

The sheriff said there had been some sightings of the men, and "most" of their families were cooperating, but he didn't go into specifics about either detail. Police were offering a $5,000 reward for help, and billboards were going up in the area.

It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor's office and judge.

Jenkins, 34, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man.

Walker, 34, was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County.

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