Inmates Chip Away Jail’s Walls and Leap From Roof to Freedom
Jose Espinosa and Otis Blunt hail from different towns and very likely were strangers until they wound up in the same jail, a drab building of sealed windows rising 14 stories behind the courthouse in downtown Elizabeth, N.J.
The two men both had violent reputations: Mr. Espinosa had pleaded guilty in a drive-by shooting death, and Mr. Blunt had done prison time for assault and armed robbery. What they also had in common was a cinder-block wall that divided their cells and, apparently, a desire not to be incarcerated any longer.
On Saturday, the Union County authorities said, Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Blunt staged a cinematic escape from the jail, using dummies fashioned out of bedsheets and pictures of pinup models to cover their tracks.
They squeezed out of their cells and out of the building through holes barely larger than a sheet of legal paper and then long-jumped 16 feet from a roof over a fence topped with razor wire, landing on a railroad bed. Two sets of footprints, each pointing in a different direction, showed that the men parted ways as soon as they hit the ground, the authorities said.
“It almost sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie,” the Union County prosecutor, Theodore J. Romankow, said Sunday. “The difference here is that this is real.”
Mr. Espinosa, 20, of Elizabeth, was to be sentenced to 17 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter in the death of Hassan Jackson in Elizabeth in 2005, and Mr. Blunt, 32, of Toms River, was awaiting trial on robbery and weapons charges. They were still being sought on Sunday.
Mr. Romankow has begun an investigation to find out how the escape happened, who was responsible and whether flaws in the jail’s construction made it easier for Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Blunt to carve their way out.
The escape seemed to have happened in two phases, and though preparations probably lasted for days, no one seemed to notice them. Mr. Blunt chipped away the mortar around one of the cinder blocks in the wall that divided his third-floor cell, B310, from that of Mr. Espinosa, in B311, until the block came loose.
Mr. Espinosa, meanwhile, worked on freeing another block, in the rear wall of his cell, next to a window.
It was unclear what tools Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Blunt used to dig out the cinder blocks, which were each 8 inches tall and 16 inches long. The two men had occupied neighboring cells for at least two weeks, the authorities said.
Mr. Romankow said the men taped magazine pictures of women in revealing outfits over the blocks to keep them hidden from guards, as Tim Robbins’s character in the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption” did to hide the entrance to the tunnel he dug to get out of prison.
Sometime in the afternoon on Saturday, Mr. Blunt — who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs about 160 pounds — removed the block from the wall in his cell and pushed himself through the hole to Mr. Espinosa’s cell. From there, he and Mr. Espinosa — who is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 155 pounds — squeezed through the gap in the outside wall and landed on a rooftop two feet below.
Because no footprints were found inside the fence, the authorities believed the men jumped 16 feet, gliding over the razor wire atop a 25-foot-tall fence and landing outside it, on the unpaved ground by the railroad tracks.
On their beds, Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Blunt left dummies made of bedsheets crumpled together under their jail-issued blankets. Guards who looked inside their cells mistook the dummies for the inmates, Mr. Romankow said; it was not until after the 5 p.m. count that the guards realized that the men were gone.
“We want to know when they left their cells and how their bunk could have had the dummies without anyone noticing it,” Mr. Romankow said.
A union delegate who answered the phone at the headquarters of Local 199 of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association in Elizabeth, which represents correction officers at the jail, said the union had no immediate comment.
The Union County jail is made up of two buildings: a blockhouse built at the turn of the 20th century for 300 prisoners and the newer one, built in 1989 for $55 million and big enough to house 1,200 inmates.
Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Blunt escaped from the newer building, whose design won an architectural award in 1987, in spite of several flaws noticed after the construction, like observation posts placed beside structural columns, producing blind spots, according to a report in the Star-Ledger of Newark in 1996. (Jail officials have since addressed some of the problems, installing concave mirrors to reduce blind spots, for example.)
At least one inmate escaped from the newer building in 1993, apparently with the help of a pair of stolen wire cutters. He surrendered two days after his escape.
The authorities identified Mr. Espinosa as a member of the Bloods street gang. And according to the state’s Department of Correction Web site, Mr. Otis served more than three years in state prison in 1996 for aggravated assault and two years in 2000 for armed robbery.
“If anyone spots these two individuals, contact law enforcement officials — don’t attempt to grab them,” Mr. Romankow said. Anyone with information is asked to call the Union County Police at (908) 654-9800.
Experts in prison construction said it was standard practice to reinforce cinder-block walls with steel bars and poured concrete to keep the blocks from being removed without hacksaw blades or other cutting tools.
“The rule of thumb in the detention industry is that if they can get their head through it, they can get their body through it,” said C. Mitch Claborn, president of Cornerstone Detention Products, a prison equipment contractor in Tanner, Ala. The largest acceptable opening in a cell is about 5 inches by 12 inches, Mr. Claborn said.
Mr. Romankow said Sunday that he had seen bars in one of the cinder blocks that were broken through. “Evidently, they squeezed between the bar and another cinder block,” he said. “But we’re going to check to see how thoroughly these reinforcements were constructed.”
James T. Garvey Jr., a former division chief for the New York City Department of Correction, said that the exterior walls on all of New York’s jails, including those on Rikers Island, are reinforced with steel.
According to a 1987 news report, CUH2A, an architectural firm in Princeton, N.J., designed the Union County jail. Sunday, however, the firm’s chairman, Michael Konsko, said he could not recall the project or which contractor built it. He added that his firm got out of the jail-design business many years ago.
Patrick McGeehan contributed reporting.