An inmate at the Moffat County Jail was discovered missing nearly four hours after he was let outside to shovel snow at the facility Friday night.
It had been one hour and 20 minutes since anyone checked on him. He remained at-large for about three hours before he was apprehended in a shed at a residence on Colorado Highway 13. Two Moffat County Sheriff's Deputies tracked the man on foot through snow and located him with the help of officers from the Craig Police Department.
The prisoner took advantage of an understaffed crew of detention officers when he escaped from jail, according to the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Buddy Grinstead "feels that the inadequate staffing levels at the jail are the primary reason for this walk-away attempt," a sheriff's office press release stated.
Deputies should check on inmates every half hour at minimum, Grinstead said, "but it boils down to how busy the detention staff is. They're heavily tasked with other duties as well."
The inmate had been in custody since Oct. 2, when he was picked up in Fremont County on a felony contempt-of-court warrant out of Moffat County.
His charges include second-degree assault and sexual assault on a child.
He went outside with two other inmates to shovel snow at about 8 p.m. Friday. At about 10 p.m., two of the inmates returned. Thirty minutes later, the jail staff checked on the lone inmate, who was observed shoveling snow on the north side of the Moffat County Safety Center.
A series of distractions then allowed the escapee a window of opportunity, according to Jail Administrator Lt. Dean Herndon.
One detention officer was busy handing out nightly medication to some of the inmates. The other was booking a DUI suspect brought in by the Colorado State Patrol.
"It's not as if (detention officers) were sitting there doing nothing," Grinstead said.
It wasn't until almost midnight when detention officers realized the inmate was no longer shoveling snow and had escaped.
According to the sheriff's office, "Escape procedures were then put into effect."
Dispatchers alerted Craig Police and the State Patrol that an inmate had escaped. Even the Colorado Department of Transportation was on the lookout for the missing prisoner.
"Every entity that was on the highway knew what was going on," Herndon said.
Two sheriff's deputies tracked the fugitive on foot for four or five miles, Herndon said.
Sgt. Tim Jantz and Deputy Courtland Folks took turns following the inmate through the snow.
Jantz set out after the escapee and tracked him near Loudy-Simpson Park, where Folks took over.
Herndon applauded the two deputies.
"The minute they got notice someone was missing, they started tracking him," Herndon said. "They got on him and stayed on him. (The escapee) didn't get any breathers ---- no rest. The two officers basically ran him into the ground."
Meanwhile, deputies maintained radio contact with police, who approached residences and other areas looking for footprints.
Folks followed the inmate to the bridge on Highway 13. Police searched the area and found footprints in a driveway near the bridge. The tracks led to a shed, where officers "ordered him out," Herndon said. The inmate came out with no resistance.
The capture effort was coordinated by the Colorado State Patrol Dispatch, which monitored the locations and radio transmissions of 12 officers, Herndon said.
"This was a combined effort," Herndon said. "That's why he didn't get any farther than he got."
The man faces eight years in prison if convicted of escape, a Class 3 felony.
Herndon was surprised that the inmate worker betrayed the "relationship" he had built with the jail staff.
"What he did was make everyone believe he was going to do what he was supposed to do," Herndon said. "Everything to him was 'Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma'am. No ma'am,' or, 'I'll get right on it.'"
The inmate is a non-violent, quiet prisoner who "sticks to himself and does what he's told," Herndon said. "He has not been a problem. He has not had an issue. He has regular visitors. He is polite and courteous to everybody."
By building a rapport with the staff, the prisoner worked his way up to "inmate worker" status. At the Safety Center, all of the janitorial work and most of the grounds work is delegated to "inmate workers."
Herndon and Grinstead insist that inmate workers have never been a problem.
Nor are they a risk to the community, Grinstead said.
The Sheriff's office has a policy in place to give work privileges only to inmates who represent "the lowest escape risk possible," Grinstead said.
But one inmate who has also shared shoveling duty in recent weeks is Don Manley, a convicted felon and a previous fugitive who skipped sentencing hearings in District Court in Moffat County and had to be hauled back to Colorado after police in Texas brought him in.
"He really didn't escape; he just didn't show up for court," Herndon said of Manley.
Grinstead blames Friday's escape on a chronic problem of understaffing at the jail. He has publicly warned the Moffat County Board of Commissioners that running the jail on short staff was risky.
He also complained that the pressure to turn a profit at the jail -- by housing inmates from other jurisdictions -- was becoming a "safety issue."
The night of the escape, the jail was staffed with two officers.
"You need three people to run this place kind of properly," Herndon said. The county's insurance company recommended staffing the jail with four officers, as did a representative from the American Correctional Association.
But with the current number of deputies, staffing the jail with adequate personnel is impossible, Herndon said.
Grinstead said he's been asking commissioners to approve funding for additional staff for years.
"If we're not going to improve staffing levels, I'm not going to put my staff at risk," Grinstead said. "I'll just cancel all contracts (with jurisdictions who house inmates at the Moffat County Jail)."
For now, inmates will forgo the late-night shoveling. All snow removal will take place just before the Safety Center opens each morning, when more personnel are available to keep an eye on things, Herndon said.
"We'll do our best to keep the inmates where they belong and keep the community safe," Grinstead said.
Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 209 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.