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Judge Chases Bike-Riding Inmate Trying to Flee Court

Escape: Jurist in car follows man who had been due in his court in robbery case. Police catch suspect.

May 23, 1997|MATEA GOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a style reminiscent of a frontier marshal, a judge in a Honda Accord chased down a bike-riding inmate attempting to escape Thursday from Culver Municipal Court.

It turned out that the escapee had been due to appear before the judge that morning to face bank robbery charges.

After foiling an elaborate escape plan by doggedly pursuing the suspect through the winding residential streets of Culver City and ramming the bike with his car, Judge Antonio Barreto Jr. removed himself from the case.

Barreto said he was worried that the suspect, Thomas Palmer, would escape into the nearby neighborhood, an area near where he and his family have lived for the last 10 years.

"I thought, 'I'm going to run him down if I have to. I'm not letting this guy get away,' " said the judge, who added that he did not recognized the escapee until after the pursuit ended. "If I didn't go after him, no one would have. Some people will say I'm a hero, and other people will say I shouldn't have done it because it's too dangerous."

Barreto was pulling into the courthouse parking lot about 9 a.m. when he saw a flash of jailhouse blues as Palmer, 44, raced down the alley behind the building.

Palmer had slipped out of his handcuffs and dived under the Sheriff's Department bus as he and other prisoners were being taken off, police said.

Sheriff's officials said deputies chased Palmer but that they were initially blocked by the bus and that he quickly disappeared. After seeing Palmer leap over a stone wall into a backyard with no one following him, Barreto raced down the alley in his car and drove after him.

According to officials, Palmer had carefully coordinated the escape with an accomplice, who stashed a bicycle and a bag with a hat, jogging suit and about $100 along a nearby street.

When Barreto turned a corner, he saw Palmer pedaling down the street on the bicycle. With his horn blaring, the judge then took off after the escaped prisoner, eventually ramming into Palmer's bike and sending the prisoner toppling onto a front lawn, Barreto said.

Dazed, Palmer jumped up and ran to a nearby waiting car. The driver, whom officials identified as Jenifer Hurtado, crashed into Barreto's car and sped away, police said. But she ran a stop sign at an intersection where there happened to be a Culver City police car. Those officers then took up the chase.

Police captured Palmer after he ran out of the car. Hurtado was arrested later at her Marina del Rey home on suspicion of aiding and abetting an escape. Both were being held without bail.

Barreto--his car seriously damaged from the chase--found a lift back to work.

Some might raise eyebrows at the idea of a judge tearing through a residential neighborhood in pursuit of an unknown suspect.

But not at the courthouse on Overland Avenue, which buzzed with excitement Thursday as news of the pursuit spread. Suddenly Barreto had a new reputation as a self-styled Lone Ranger. "Good job, Rambo!" read a sign left on his desk.

"I know a lot of judges, and no other judge would have the courage and go as far as Judge Barreto did," said Culver Court Commissioner Brad Fox. "Hearing it was him doesn't surprise me at all . . . but I don't know what I would do in that situation. It's pretty rare to see someone put his life on the line like that."

For his part, the judge was matter-of-fact about his exploit. Barreto bustled into his courtroom after his exciting morning and calmly announced to the waiting attorneys that he was disqualifying himself from Palmer's case because of his role in apprehending him. Then he returned to his office, where a barrage of media cameras were waiting.

"I don't like people to get away," Barreto said, "and we all have to do our part."

The judge acknowledged that he had never before gotten involved in anything like Thursday's chase, during which he hopped curbs and screamed out of his window, "Escaped inmate! Call the police!" as he careened around residential streets.

In fact, when Barreto phoned his mother to tell her about his adventure, she scolded him for risking his safety.

Palmer is not the first prisoner to attempt an escape from the Culver City courthouse. Barreto and other judges said four or fives inmates have tried to make a getaway in past years as they were being escorted off the sheriff's bus.

Unlike many other courthouses, Culver Municipal doesn't have a locked area where prisoners are unloaded. Instead, the bus pulls up in the alley behind the court and handcuffed defendants are led through a narrow passageway surrounded by a chain-link fence.

"We're virtually without any security," Fox said. "This isn't the first escape we've had, and we're in a residential area, where an inmate can escape and enter a household."

Sheriff's officials said they didn't know how Palmer wriggled out of his handcuffs, but vowed to step up security measures.

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