Police look up at a rope that is hanging out of a broken window on the second-floor of the St. Louis Justice Center in downtown St. Louis on Friday, April 22, 2011 in St. Louis.
Photo credit: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Emily Rasinski
ST. LOUIS -- A manhunt was under way downtown early Friday morning after two jail inmates escaped from the St. Louis Justice Center by breaking a large window facing City Hall and using a bedsheet to climb out.
The inmates became the first ever to escape the state-of-the-art, maximum-security jail because one "knuckle-headed corrections officer" did not fully investigate noises coming from their cell, said Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay.
Both escapees are violent, officials say. One is charged with stabbing a man 21 times in March. The other allegedly stabbed a woman and used her child as a human shield in January.
Police got word of the escape about 6:55 a.m. Friday. One officer involved in the search said the inmates may have gotten "about an hour and a half head start."
Inmates Vernon Lamont Collins, 34, and David White, 33, apparently broke out a front window and scaled down the front of the building at 200 S. Tucker Boulevard using black cloth tied together with rope. The mostly translucent window on the west facade faces Tucker, directly across the street from City Hall.
Collins and White -- who were jailed awaiting trial on a list of charges including assault -- shed their yellow jail jumpsuits before the escape, Stubblefield said. Officials think they got out while wearing white t-shirts and shorts and white tennis shoes.
Below the shattered window is a security camera mounted to the outside of the building. It appears to have been knocked off its mount, though it is still dangling from the building.
No blood is visible near the window or on the ground. Police search dogs were brought to the sidewalk in front of the building.
Gene Stubblefield, the city's commissioner of corrections, told reporters that a nurse had heard noises coming from the inmate's cell three times and asked the corrections officer on duty to investigate each time. But the corrections officer never entered the cell, Stubblefield said.
At least one of the times, an inmate explained the noises by saying he was "shadow boxing."
"What was he hitting?" Stubblefield asked, in disbelief. "He never went in the cell. Never went in the cell!"
The inmates then propped a bunk bed against the wall, crawled into the ceiling, through a trap door, and out to the window facing Tucker Boulevard. That window was covered by steel rebar, and Stubblefield said he didn't yet know how the inmates got through the rebar.
Daphne Golden of St. Louis, who was in a waiting room at the jail to bail out her son, said she heard the corrections officers announce "count clear" over the intercom at shift change at about 6:30 a.m. Count clear is supposed to signal that all inmates are accounted for.
Then, about five minutes later, the jailers started running around, yelling to secure all doors and elevators. That's when they realized the inmates had escaped, she said.
"They were running around like wild people," Golden said.
Golden thinks it was a well-planned escape because she noticed that one of the high-powered lights that usually shines on the front of the Justice Center was out at about 2 a.m. Friday when she first tried to bail her son out. She noticed the light out because she was going up and down Tucker trying to read the building names.
On the balcony, just below the shattered window, are two high-powered lights trained on the building. The light that was not lighting up the building had been covered up by a black cloth, similar to the cloth being used as a climbing rope.
Both inmates were assigned to the medical unit, Rainford said.
Officials said Friday morning's escape was the first from the downtown jail. The $101 million facility was built with a state-of-the-art design in 2002 and was supposed to be escape-proof. It replaced a St. Louis city jail that was built in 1914. The old one had its share of daring escapes, including where inmates scaled razor wire or dug through floors. After one escape in 1986 from the old jail, the corrections chief described it as being "like Swiss cheese" because "there were holes all over it from 72 years of escapes and some of them obviously weren't patched right."
But the new facility was supposed to be different.
Mayor Slay sent out a tweet Friday morning that said: "No, prisoners should not be able to climb out of the front window of a maximum security jail."
Rainford, his chief of staff, said: "This was not some master-minded scheme. This was one knuckle-headed corrections officer."
A few hours after the escape was detected early Friday, passersby stood along Tucker and watched as a firefighter used a ladder truck to get close enough to the window to take photographs.
Some type of dark cloth tied with rope dangled from the second floor window. Stubblefield said it was bedsheets. The cloth dangles about 15 feet to a balcony area. From there, it is another 30 feet or so from that landing to the ground below.
The jail is run by the city's Public Safety Department. St. Louis Police Capt. Sam Dotson said police are reviewing video surveillance to see if anyone helped the inmates escape.
The escapees were being held on a long list of charges.
Collins was being held on first-degree assault on a law enforcement officer, armed criminal action, first-degree assault, resisting arrest and disarming a peace or correctional officer. White was being held for first-degree burglary, second-degree domestic assault, unlawful use of a weapon, first-degree endangering the welfare of a child and second-degree property damage.
Stubblefield, the corrections chief, was clearly irritated by what he described as the officer's lack of action. He said there are only two ways for escape -- to walk out the front door, or for corrections staff simply not to be watching the inmates.
Rainford said Stubblefield has reason to be upset.
"He is pissed, and he should be pissed," Rainford said. "If you hear a ruckus, maybe you should investigate it. It's really that simple."