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Ventura County

Jail Houdini Can't Escape From Prison Term

Sentence: Man who slipped out of his cell and picked the locks of his restraints gets 12 years.

June 12, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spencer Moss escaped from a maximum-security jail cell and slipped out of handcuffs and leg shackles in a Ventura County courtroom after picking the restraints' locks with a wad of toilet paper and the tooth of a comb.

But the clever inmate couldn't maneuver his way out of a 12-year prison sentence Tuesday for two counts of attempted escape by force.

At his hearing, Moss, a 36-year-old Carpinteria resident who acted as his own attorney, insisted that he was the victim of sneaky tactics by the court, and not the other way around.

"I believe I didn't get a fair trial," Moss said, accusing the judge and law enforcement officials of violating his constitutional rights.

Chained at the waist and surrounded by five deputies, Moss, a rail-thin defendant with a mop of curly brown hair and a wiry beard, alleged that he had been falsely imprisoned. He said deputies illegally searched his paperwork and denied him access to a lawyer. He said the probation report was fraudulent and the judge biased.

Moss asked for a new trial. But Superior Court Judge Art Gutierrez denied the request and ordered Moss sent to prison for a maximum term of 12 years.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ryan Wright said sheriff's officials were so eager to get rid of the slippery Moss that they planned to put him on a bus to prison within an hour of sentencing. "He has been a constant headache and a problem for them," Wright said.

In two years in jail, Moss racked up 64 security violations that included hiding contraband in his ears and swallowing screws from a jail sink. Wright said there have been at least eight more violations since the probation report was written.

"I get daily updates," he said. "Somebody like this just doesn't want to play by someone else's rules, and that makes him an extreme danger to society."

Moss would likely dispute that characterization.

Last year, a jury acquitted him of car theft after a trial in which he represented himself. Authorities later arrested him on suspicion of writing a bad check. Moss landed in the maximum-security unit of the county's main jail after breaking jail rules, Wright said.

Moss' first attempted escape occurred Jan. 24. Two deputies were moving him from one cell to another when one noticed Moss had hurriedly flushed something down his toilet. Afraid it might be contraband, the deputy checked the toilet while leaving Moss with his partner.

When she moved toward the cell door, Moss scooted past her and slammed the door shut, locking both deputies inside, Wright said. Handcuffed, Moss ran down the hallway, tried to force open other doors and bumped into a third deputy. An inmate eventually tackled him. The incident was caught on videotape.

The second escape attempt occurred Jan. 31, when Moss unlocked his leg shackles and handcuffs during a court appearance on the bad check case. Deputies tackled Moss after he threw the shackles in the direction of a court reporter. Wright said authorities later determined that Moss had picked the locks with toilet paper and a piece of a comb.

Moss was charged with two counts of attempted escape and one count of battery for running into the deputy during the jail incident. At trial, the videotape was shown to jurors. They also saw a detailed map of the jail floor plan that authorities had seized during a search of Moss' cell.

"It was really well done," Wright said. "He had arrows going from his cell to each of the exits. That is really what convicted him."

After a weeklong trial, jurors convicted Moss of the attempted escape charges but deadlocked on the battery count, which was dismissed.

Wright said Moss' antics continued up to trial. Before court one day, he said, deputies searched Moss' ear and found a piece of tinfoil, fashioned into a handcuff key.

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