Five inmates rappelled down the side of the downtown Metropolitan Detention Center and sprinted to freedom Sunday night, engineering the first successful escape from a new federal prison that had been designed in part to quell a rash of escape attempts.
The five men sliced through the heavy metal mesh lining an eighth-floor recreation balcony shortly before 10:30 p.m. and made their way down the outside wall with a rope made of bedsheets, authorities said.
A guard who witnessed the escape gave chase, and one of the men, Lester McDougherty, 31, was apprehended about five hours later a few blocks from the prison, spokeswoman Lyn Croasmun said. McDougherty had apparently fallen behind the others because of a broken leg, Croasmun said.
U.S. marshals launched an immediate manhunt for the four others, all awaiting trial or sentencing on charges ranging from bank robbery to weapons violations. At large by midday today were James David Wilson, 31; Kevin Greene, 32; Robert Garrison, 43, and Victor Age, 31.
Age had only recently remarked to the prosecutor in his case that the detention center--which opened seven months ago as an alternative for pretrial inmates to the lower-security federal prison at Terminal Island--was far from escape-proof.
"He was bragging about how the facility was not a secure facility. I'll be damned," said the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam. "He said . . . the type of people we're putting in federal custody these days, that the facility was not designed for the hardened street criminals who know how to break out of prisons."
Croasmun said it was not known whether the escapees were armed, "but they're considered dangerous."
The five men were on an authorized recreation outing on the open-air balcony, which is available to inmates until 11 p.m., Croasmun said. Apparently using hacksaw blades, the men sliced through the heavy metal mesh that encloses the balcony and slipped down to the exterior of a similar balcony on the sixth floor. From there, authorities said, they climbed down to the third floor and then to the ground.
Croasmun said prison officials were not certain whether the men had thrown down extra bedsheets to fashion new ropes as they went, "or in the worst case," whether inmates on lower-level balconies were waiting with extra bedsheets to aid the escape.
The $36-million, 10-story Metropolitan Detention Center, opened at 535 N. Alameda St. in mid-December, was designed to house federal prisoners who are awaiting trial or sentencing before they are assigned to federal prisons across the country to serve out their terms. It houses about 950 prisoners.
Following Sunday night's escape, prisoners were confined to their cells and guards conducted a search that yielded the hacksaw blades believed to have been used to cut the wire mesh.
"We are shaking down the entire institution, floor by floor. We're looking for anything that does not belong, anything that looks out of the ordinary. We're looking for contraband, just as a security precaution," Croasmun said.