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Door left open raises new concerns about jail security

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of August 1, 2013)
Photo: A sheriff's deputy doing perimeter check of the jail in a golf cart.

An Indian River County Jail maintenance worker is being docked 40 hours of pay after being accused of leaving an exterior utility room door open, the same type of room two dangerous inmates used when they escaped  nearly two years ago.

The June incident prompted a 157-page internal affairs investigation that raises renewed concerns about jail security and access to the utility rooms that lead outside of the facility.

“If an inmate has kicked (through) the shower wall that accesses the (utility room), they would be able to get straight out of the jail?” Det. Justin Knott, the internal affairs investigator, asked Lt. Adam Bailey, who supervises jail maintenance.

“There is only one perimeter fence from that open door to freedom – yes,” said Bailey, according to the internal affairs transcript.

The open door was the second jail security breach in recent months.

On June 28, two inmates, one convicted of attempted murder and the second awaiting trial on kidnapping charges, slipped from their cells and wandered unnoticed for at least an hour around the D Building cellblock. That building houses high-risk inmates and is also the same building where the utility room door was left open.

A larger concern is that the five prisoners who most recently have escaped from the jail found their paths to freedom through the utility rooms. The rooms circle the outside of the three buildings where prisoners are locked up and provide access to plumbing and other utilities going to the cells.

Convicted killers Rondell Reed and Leviticus Taylor knew about the utility rooms in 2011 when they crawled through an air conditioning duct to get into one of them. Once inside, they broke a door lock to flee the jail.

Three other inmates, Martin Finney, Edward Robertson and Keith Carter, escaped in 2005 when they crawled through a hole behind a cell shower and opened a utility room door to the outside.

In this most recent incident, jail guards discovered a utility room door left wide open on June 3. The jail went into lockdown when the open door was discovered  around 7 p.m. Jail guards were ordered to get their weapons, search jail grounds and count heads to ensure all of the roughly 460 inmates were still inside.

Deputy Jeffrey Plasse found the open door while riding on a golf cart along a security fence. If the maintenance worker left the door open as he is accused of doing, it’s likely it had been open about six hours before Plasse discovered the security breach.

The investigation led to the 40-hour suspension without pay of maintenance worker Dan Long, who is charged with negligence for leaving the door open, something he denies. The rooms give maintenance workers and guards access from the jail’s exterior to the utilities for the cells.

Long asked that the charge be dropped.  He said he is extremely diligent about security and noted there is no video surveillance showing him near the door. The sheriff’s office hasn’t budged so far.

Fourteen employees from maintenance men to the jail commander were interviewed by internal affairs for Long’s disciplinary report.

What’s in the 157 pages is telling about jail security.

The investigation found that despite promises by Sheriff Deryl Loar to step up security enhancements, the jail remains rife with opportunities for security breaches and perhaps even escapes. 

In reviewing the investigation, Vero Beach 32963 found:

-    Jail administrators place a great deal of faith in maintenance workers who are not trained or sworn law enforcement officers.

-    Jail commanders allow inmates assigned to janitorial duties access to the utility rooms where they clearly can assess any obstacles they’ll need to overcome if they want to escape.

-    Keys to the doors can easily be copied at any hardware store.

-    Deputies rarely check the doors. Instead, they do visuals check while riding on a golf cart many feet away.

-    Surveillance cameras do not monitor all the utility doors.

Loar did not respond to an e-mail or telephone call about jail security.

Prior to the 2011 escape, all that separated inmates who got into a utility room from freedom was a standard door lock.

Steel bars with padlocks now prevent the doors from opening from the inside so long as the locks are in place. There is also a deadbolt and an exterior door-jam slide.  

Two civilian maintenance workers have master keys to the locks. They are not required to sign the keys in or out of the jail facility; rather, they take their keys home.

Key privileges are also extended to a deputy in charge of the trustee work crew, the maintenance supervisor and jail Commander Selby Strickland.  Should other employees need access to the rooms, they must access a lockbox with their security cards.

“You can’t make copies of these keys, right?” Knott asked during his investigation.

“Anybody can make copies of them,” said Sgt. David Clark. “I mean just go down to Lowes or True Value Hardware.”

Forty-eight utility rooms ring the three buildings where prisoners are housed. Once a week, the maintenance worker opens all the doors before beginning the inspections.

The worker then steps inside the last room he has opened to check the plumbing and other fixtures. He then locks that door and moves to the next room. In that fashion, he circles his was way back until he reaches the first door he opened.

By opening all of the doors and working backwards, the first door a maintenance worker opens could be open for hours by the time the worker completes his inspections.

When investigator Knott asked Bailey, the maintenance supervisor, how often the doors are physically checked to ensure they are locked, he was told maintenance staff checks them weekly.  Bailey also told him jail guards conduct periodic hands-on checks to ensure the padlocks are on and all the security measures are in place.

At the time of the questioning, Bailey indicated he thought the check of the doors by guards had been done three weeks earlier.

The check by guards actually occurred a full month earlier when Deputy Steve Thomas took an inmate into each utility room to sweep the floors, the internal affairs investigation reveals.

The investigation also revealed deputies typically do perimeter checks from a golf cart on the other side of the fence. If a door is unlocked and is not spotted, it could remain open for a week before a maintenance worker again does an inspection.

When Lt. Frank LoMonaco was interviewed during the investigation, he expressed concern about the lag time between the perimeter checks.  Perimeter checks –  the visual checks from a golf cart – are typically done twice during a shift.  The door to Building D that was left open was discovered June 3 just before 7 p.m. The previous perimeter check was done at 1 p.m.

“Well, it just may be something to look into because it may be not a proper time to be done,” LoMonaco said.

Knott interviewed Long last.  He – like the 13 others interviewed – denied leaving the door open.

 “Do you recall leaving that door open?” Knott asked.

“No sir, I do not,” Long said.

“Do you recall locking that door?” Knott asked.

“No sir, I do not,” Long said.

When Knott asked Long if he knew how that door could have been left open, he responded: “Apparently from reading your files, everybody that has been interviewed declined leaving it open, so that leaves me.”

Knott then asked if the door was intentionally left open.

“Of course not, sir,” Long said.

“You haven’t had any sort of communication with any person to have you leave that door open on their behalf?” Knott asked.

“No sir,” said Long.

Long told Knott that a deputy who needed some help with the security cameras called him twice while he was doing his inspections. He said he needed to leave the area briefly to get better cellphone reception.

“I don’t recollect walking back to that door,” Long told Knott. “I don’t recollect leaving that door open. I am actually a very security minded individual and (I’m) very particular … when I do these inspections that I make sure that I secure the door. … I thought I checked all of them to make sure that they were secure and as I said before, I am very particular about closing them and securing these doors.”

Before concluding Long was negligent, Knott combed through video trying to determine who left the door open.  His report states there is video showing Long inspecting some of the utility rooms, but no video of him opening or shutting the door left open.  

The sheriff’s office redacted the door number in Vero Beach 32963’s public records request but it’s clear from investigation transcripts the area, on the west side of the building, is not totally covered by a camera.

Long drove home that point when he defended himself.

“I feel that being suspended for five days based on the investigative conclusion that ‘Mr. Long likely left the door open’ is an excessive and unwarranted  punishment do to the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that I did leave that door open,” Long wrote in his rebuttal. “The video evidence provided in the investigation doesn’t show the door in question; it only shows the doors in close proximity to the door in question. What the video plainly demonstrates is that I was very diligent in securing every door that I opened.”