By Joshua Benton and Reese Dunklin
WEATHERFORD – In the end, freedom was fleeting.
The three inmates who spent weeks planning their escape from the Parker County Jail – they crawled through an air duct in their cell out to the roof, where they jumped and ran away – were surrounded 15 hours later on Saturday at an associate’s house in remote Tarrant County.
After a brief standoff with police, the three men surrendered, were taken into custody and were returned to the very place they’d tried so hard to flee.
“They will be well supervised,” Sheriff Jay Brown said Saturday night from the county jail in Weatherford.
Police planned to file escape charges against Wesley Eugene Hilton, 41; Michael Ray West, 35; and James Douglas Holden, 37.
Authorities also detained four people in connection with the escape and charged them with hindering apprehension.
Three of them – Albert Lewis, 58; James Mort, 35; and Clara Towler, 26 – were taken to the Parker County jail. Bail had not been set.
The fourth – Gene Malone, who police said owned the home where the inmates hid out – was taken to Tarrant County, where he faces additional charges.
Sheriff Brown said police were investigating how the inmates escaped and whether they had other help.
The escape – at least the fourth in Parker County since 1994 – renewed concerns about security and guard staffing at the Parker County Jail.
Sheriff had sought help
Sheriff Brown said he had approached Parker County commissioners in recent years after taking office in the late 1990s and asked for approval for a 10-foot fence topped with razor wire for the jail’s perimeter.
But commissioners didn’t approve his proposal. If inmates can make it outside the jail’s walls, the sheriff said, “they’re scot-free.”
“I tried so hard to get that fence,” he said. “I might be able to get it now. … This just proves the point I’ve been trying to make for seven years.”
The jail has about one guard for every 40 inmates, just under the state’s mandated ratio of 1-to-48. Sheriff’s officials said their efforts to hire more guards have also been rejected.
“We do need more help down here,” said Investigator Anne Hollis, a department spokeswoman. “We can’t keep working on the manpower we have.”
County officials said that the sheriff’s fence proposal wasn’t made at a time when money could be allocated, and they insisted that the jail has an adequate numbers of guards.
“I don’t think that he should throw it in the lap of the commissioners,” said Commissioner Jim Webster.
The escape happened about 3 a.m. Saturday when the inmates worked loose bars over an air duct in their cell. Sheriff Brown said that once the men were in the air duct, they were apparently able to tear it apart at the seam and get onto the roof.
From there, the three apparently took off their jail clothes, jumped 15 feet to the ground and fled wearing only their boxer shorts to a home about a mile away, where police say they were assisted by Mr. Lewis, Mr. Mort and Ms. Towler. Jail guards discovered the three missing about 3:45 a.m.
Sheriff’s deputies questioned visitors to the inmates or anyone who might have spoken to them by telephone. Sheriff Brown said he believed that phone conversations were taped and that investigators would review those tapes.
The daylong manhunt took a key turn about 4 p.m. when Parker County Sheriff’s Department deputies spotted a red Chevrolet pickup believed to have been used by the three inmates outside the home on Nine Mile Bridge Road, Sheriff Jay Brown said.
Sheriff’s deputies, along with state officers, swarmed the home in the 7500 block of Nine Mile Bridge Road, a presumed “safe house,” Sheriff Brown said.
When deputies arrived, Mr. Malone, the homeowner, quickly came out and surrendered. Mr. Holden followed suit about a minute later, officials said.
But Mr. Hilton and Mr. West barricaded themselves inside the two-story home, possibly in the attic. Officials waited for more than an hour and, around 5:30 p.m., fired tear gas inside, eventually driving the two outside. They gave up as well. No one was injured in the standoff.
The inmates had apparently been plotting the escape for a while, officials said. Police said the men had outside help, but Mr. Holden denied that to investigators.
Other inmates knew
Three other inmates who shared the cell with the escapees told investigators that they knew about the breakout plans but feared retaliation if they told jail officials, authorities said. The inmates who stayed behind said the escapees had been working on the bars for about six weeks.
Mr. Hilton and Mr. West hadn’t been in the Parker County Jail long.
Mr. Hilton was arrested in April in the 1999 slaying of Tarrant County car salesman Robert Pounds. Mr. Pounds’ body was found in the driveway of his home, which is in the same neighborhood as Nine Mile Bridge Road. Mr. Hilton has several other criminal charges in his past.
Mr. West was moved to the Parker County Jail in April and was serving a 50-year sentence on burglary charges. Last year, he escaped from the Hood County Jail for five days and had attempted to escape from a state prison facility in 1991.
Mr. Holden was in the Parker County Jail because authorities had revoked his parole after an assault charge, said Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
When sheriff’s deputies returned the men to the jail, they were taken near reporters gathered there. Sheriff Brown quipped to Mr. Hilton, “You’ve earned a little more time today.”
Staff writer Jamie Jordan contributed to this report.