Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

2 killers escape North Florida prison with bogus documents

ORLANDO — At first glance, the paperwork ordering the release of two convicted murderers serving life sentences looked legitimate.

So the guards at Franklin Correctional Institution in North Florida put one of the men on a bus and opened the gates for the other to ride away with family. Authorities now say prison officials were duped by the court documents, which included a fake motion from a prosecutor and a judge's forged signature.

As prison officials, prosecutors and courts across the state scrambled to make sure no one else had been mistakenly released, police searched for the two men who already have a head start. Joseph Jenkins was let out Sept. 27, and Charles Walker was freed Oct. 8.

Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention of the court clerk's office or the Corrections Department. Namely, it's rare for a judge to order a sentencing reduction, and even more uncommon for the request to come from prosecutors.

"One of the things we have never taken a close look at is the verification of a particular document to make sure it's the real McCoy," said Perry, whose name was forged on the paperwork.

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

State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton said he learned Jenkins had been released when Pugh's family contacted his office. They reviewed the paperwork and found that it was a fake, then notified law enforcement. Later, they discovered Walker's release documents were also bogus. The paperwork also forged prosecutors' signatures, Ashton said.

It wasn't clear exactly who dummied up the paperwork.

Upon hearing of Jenkins' release, his former attorney, Bob Wesley, said he was sure "it wasn't a cunning master plan."

Wesley, now the public defender for metro Orlando, recalled his client's crime and said Jenkins broke into a home of someone he knew and was "not smart enough to pull his ski mask down."

Walker was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County. He told investigators that 23-year-old Cedric Slater was bullying him and he fired three shots intending to scare him.

Walker's then-defense attorney, Robert LeBlanc, now a judge in Orlando, refused to comment.

In a statement, Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said his agency was reviewing records to make sure no other inmates had been released in a similar fashion.

Florida state Rep. Darryl Rouson, the Democratic ranking member of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said the Legislature should review the agency's procedures.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he was focused on the manhunt.

"The first thing you do when something like this happens is solve the problem you have at hand," he said. "We need to apprehend these individuals, and that's what we're doing."

In both cases, the forged paperwork included motions from prosecutors to correct "illegal" sentences, accompanied by orders allegedly filed by Perry within the last couple of months. The orders granted a 15-year sentence. Perry is best known for presiding over the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011.

Leesa Bainbridge, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Clerk of Courts, said the office moves thousands of pages of court documents a day and has no way of authenticating those that pass to other agencies.

"We're kind of like the post office," Bainbridge said. "It comes in and we move it along."

Bainbridge said officials in the clerk's office plan to talk about what measures, if any, can be put in place to make sure something similar doesn't happen again.

"This is something we take very seriously," she said. "We don't find this funny."

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