Seven months before convicted murderers Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins escaped from state prison using phony court documents, a fellow inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution was caught trying to do the same thing.
However, corrections officials never investigated the prior escape attempt, nor did they enter information about it into a computer system designed to document such issues, a Local 6 investigation has revealed.
"No administrative investigation was conducted," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary.
Shortly after Walker and Jenkins were re-captured in October 2013, the Department of Corrections made numerous procedural changes to prevent inmates from being released as a result of fraudulent court orders. But new information uncovered by Local 6 suggests corrections officials missed an opportunity to stop those escapes from occurring in the first place.
In January 2013, an employee at the Brevard County Clerk of Courts office was processing paperwork when she came across a court order containing the signature of circuit court judge John Griesbaum. The court order reduced the prison sentence of inmate Gerald Joe, making him eligible for release. Joe had been serving 30 years at Franklin C.I. for taking part in 1999 drug-related murder in Titusville.
"An order to reduce sentence is fairly rare. And one that's going to reduce sentence and call for an immediate release is extremely rare," said Brevard County Clerk of Court Scott Ellis. "The clerks took a look at the order. It just didn't look right to them."
That observant employee contacted Judge Griesbaum, who confirmed he did not sign any court orders that would set the inmate free. Although the signature on the court order appeared to be Griesbaum's, the judge said his handwriting must have been "cut and pasted" from another document.
Supervisors at the clerk's office alerted the Brevard County sheriff. Ten days later, Sgt. Jackie Hearon traveled to Franklin C.I., located in the Florida Panhandle, where she obtained a search warrant to collect evidence from Joe's cell.
Joe admitted to drafting the fraudulent court order and giving it to fellow inmates in the prison's legal department to type up, according to Sgt. Hearon's report. However, Joe denied forging the judge's signature, claiming it was not on the document when he mailed it.
During a search of Joe's cell, the Brevard County investigator found an envelope belonging to Joe's cellmate, Earles McCloud, who worked in the prison's education department and had access to a copy machine. Inside the envelope was an authentic court document containing the real signature of Judge Griesbaum. That signature was identical to the one that appeared on Joe's fraudulent court order, according to Sgt. Hearon.
Records obtained by Local 6 indicate Franklin C.I.'s Assistant Warden Willie Brown and at least two inspectors with the DOC's Office of the Inspector General were aware of Sgt. Hearon's investigation inside their prison.
According to a memo drafted by DOC Inspector James Padgett, nothing about Hearon's interview with Joe was entered into the department's Management Information Network. The computerized incident reporting system enables "early identification of problems and timely allocation of investigative and corrective resources," according to a DOC report.
In the memo, Inspector Padgett acknowledged the Brevard County detective was investigating Joe's attempt to file fraudulent legal documents with the court clerk. When Joe arrived in a prison conference room for his interview with Sgt. Hearon, Padgett dismissed the security staff and remained present "out of concern for the safety of the female detectives," according to his memo.
Padgett's memo to Investigations Chief Ken Sumpter is dated Oct. 25, 2013, more than eight months after Sgt. Hearon's visit to the prison. The memo was written about a week after authorities re-captured inmates Jenkins and Walker, and two days after Local 6 published the first news report about Joe's attempted escape. It is the only document generated by the Department of Corrections provided in a public records request for investigative reports pertaining to Joe's attempted escape. All other records released by the DOC were created by the Brevard County Sheriff's Office as part of their investigation.
In his memo, Padgett mentions an email he sent to the prison's assistant warden. The DOC has still not released that and other internal emails requested by Local 6 more than nine months ago.
"The inspector who assisted (the Brevard County Sheriff's Office) took preventative measures to ensure inmate Joe would not be released prematurely," said DOC spokeswoman Cary. "Additionally, DOC management has changed internal policies and procedures which include adding additional safeguards to ensure the validity of court orders."
Cary said DOC Secretary Michael Crews was unavailable to be interviewed by Local 6. The spokeswoman did not respond to questions asking whether any DOC personnel have been disciplined as a result of the Joe's attempted escape or the successful escapes of Jenkins and Walker.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent investigation of the prison escapes. That investigation remains open, according to an FDLE spokeswoman.
Gerald Joe was never charged with forgery or trying to escape from prison. After reviewing the evidence collected by the Brevard County sheriff’s investigator and speaking to Judge Griesbaum, the state attorney’s office for Brevard and Seminole counties decided not to file criminal charges, stating “the available evidence is insufficient to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt even though the defendant would have been the beneficiary of the fraudulent order.”
The original trial judge who presided over Joe’s 1999 murder case sentenced him to 30 years in prison followed by 10 years of probation. Following Joe’s attempted escape in February 2013, the DOC did not seek probation violation charges, which could have extended his sentence. Instead, corrections officials waited until November to arrest Joe for probation violation, following the escape and capture of Walker and Jenkins. In their probation violation report, the DOC cited evidence collected by the Brevard County sheriff’s investigator nine months earlier.
Joe has pleaded not guilty to violating his probation.
Jenkins and Walker, who were both serving life sentences for murders in Orange County, are facing additional charges of escape and forgery. The forged signatures of Orange Osceola State Attorney Jeff Ashton and prosecutor James Altman appeared on fraudulent motions seeking a reduction in the inmates’ prison sentences. Orange County Chief Judge Belvin Perry’s forged signature appeared on a court order granting Walker’s release. Jenkins’s fraudulent court papers contained the forged signature of circuit judge Rene Roche.
Jenkins was released from the Franklin Correctional Institution on Sept. 27, 2103, after the Orange County Clerk of Courts received the phony court order. Eleven days later, Walker was set free from the same prison. Both men were re-captured at a Panama City motel on Oct. 19, following a four-day nationwide manhunt.
Prosecutors have also charged fellow Franklin C.I. inmate Jeffrey Forbes with forgery and attempted escape. He was serving a life sentence for shooting and paralyzing Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Adam Pierce in 2005. In late February 2013, Orange County Detective Dave Clark was checking the DOC’s database for inmates he helped convict when he discovered Forbes was scheduled to be released. Clark notified the state attorney’s office, which discovered fraudulent court documents filed on Forbes’s behalf.
The state attorney’s office informed DOC of Forbes’s escape attempt. In April 2013, DOC Senior Inspector Conan Davidson told a state attorney investigator that the DOC “planned to conduct an audit of other potential escapes”, according to state attorney records.
If such an audit took place, there is no indication that corrections officials considered the evidence collected by the Brevard County detective regarding inmate Joe’s thwarted attempted escape two months earlier. Five months after the DOC inspector reportedly discussed that planned audit, Jenkins and Walker escaped.
State investigators now believe another inmate, Nydeed Nashaddai, engineered the escape scheme. In 2010, a jury convicted him of escaping from the Pinellas County jail using similar forged court documents. Nashaddai was sent to Franklin C.I., where authorities suspect he taught his forgery skills to fellow inmates there.
In December 2013, prosecutors charged Nashaddai with taking part in the inmate escape plot. Authorities also arrested Terrance Goodman and Walker’s brother-in-law, Willie Slater, for allegedly providing assistance from outside the prison walls.