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Lack of staff may have aided jail break

(ran PW edition of PT)

Jails run on a tight schedule, with set times for everything from meals to exercise to showers. So when dinner time rolled around Feb. 17, Michelle Smith wasn't surprised when a guard spoke on the jail's communications system and told her to get ready for class.

That night, Smith and fellow inmate Starr Gibson were studying for their high school equivalency certificates. It was a school night at the jail's small classroom. The female guard entered the women's dormitory between 6:30 and 7 p.m., ready to escort them.

The guard waited for the women to gather their things, then handcuffed them to each other and led them out of the cellblock.

Soon after, the routine was shattered and guards were scurrying about. "I thought it was a bomb threat or a fire," Smith told the Times last week.

All that confusion was a jail break. And authorities say it occurred during the brief time the female guard was handling the students and the other guard on duty was watching the three.

That stretch of time has been studied, analyzed and questioned many times since that day. The Sheriff's Office continues to investigate; local media, including the Times, still seek information.

Three of the five inmates _ Ronnie Buttram, John Hufstetler and Jerry Hinton _ are back in custody. Joseph Provost and Frank Wiley remain at large, despite a massive search.

Sheriff Charles Dean has released few details about the jail employees' actions that night, citing his ongoing investigation. But last week, Smith and another inmate, Kathy Fletcher, addressed a few points.

The women _ who both have been released since the escape _ confirmed that the female guard stayed in the dormitory for five to eight minutes that night. Smith said it seemed like six or seven; Fletcher said it was more like eight.

They identified the guard as Dora Williams, a rookie corrections officer who had been on the job little more than a month. Williams could not be reached for comment because addresses and phone numbers of law enforcement employees are not public record.

Dean has declined to give the names of the guards on duty that night or any information about their activity, according to his spokeswoman, Gail Tierney.

Neither Smith nor Fletcher saw what the other guard on duty in the observation room _ whose name they did not know _ was doing at the time.

It's a crucial point. Dean said that, for security purposes, the other guard was busy watching the female corrections officer and her two prisoners. During that time, five men in a different area got into an air duct, climbed down a pipe into a utility room and then used a nearby ladder to hop the jail's fence.

Both women said the male guard easily could have been distracted long enough for the other inmates to escape.

"Yes, it is possible," said Fletcher, who now lives in Montverde, in Lake County. "A lot of them (guards) do stand and watch . . . a lot of times they do have to, because (an inmate could) jump on them."

"There are too many pods for one person to watch at one time," said Smith, now a St. Augustine resident.

At the same time, Fletcher recalls times when a guard has been inside the women's dormitory and other guards don't watch at all.

"They don't always look directly. Their backs are turned. They have other pods to watch," Fletcher said.

The jail was short-staffed that night, so only one guard was watching the inmate areas while the female prisoners were escorted to class. Two people usually oversee the area.

Smith said about 12 or 13 women were in the jail's female dormitory that night. Smith, 26, was serving a 60-day jail term for violating probation she had been given for shoplifting.

She said Williams, the corrections officer, was friendly when she entered the dormitory. Williams chatted with inmates and answered their questions. Smith's fellow inmate and classmate, Gibson, is still incarcerated and could not be reached for comment.

Fletcher, 38, who was serving a six-month term for burglary and forgery charges, agreed with that description of Williams. Fletcher was in an upstairs cell in the two-floor pod at the time, but she was aware when Williams was in and out of the cellblock.

On another front, state records show that inspectors have given the jail a generally clean bill of health since the facility opened in October 1992.

In the inspection completed in October, the Florida Department of Corrections cited problems with showers and plumbing fixtures. Fire inspectors have pointed to other missteps, such as improperly using an extension cord, storing items too close to a ceiling and allowing a piece of paper to remain over an exit sign.