Tennessee officials launched a massive manhunt Tuesday after an escaped inmate and his wife allegedly killed a corrections officer outside a courthouse. George Hyatte, already sentenced to 35-years in jail for aggravated assault and robbery, was in court on Monday to plead guilty to other charges. His wife, Jennifer, sat in the courtroom while he was ordered to serve to six additional years in prison.
Minutes later, corrections officers loaded him into a van outside the courthouse. Jennifer Hyatte then pulled up in an SUV and gunned down a guard. Corrections Officer Wayne Cotton Morgan later died hours from a blow to the stomach.
Now, the Bonnie and Clyde pair is on the run and considered very dangerous. MSNBC-TV's Dan Abrams discusses the events with a local panel involve din the search: Roane County Sheriff David Haggard, whose officers were first on the scene, Tennessee Department of Corrections Amanda Sluss, Assistant District Attorney in Rhea County where George Hyatte is originally from, James Pope, and the Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Mark Gwyn.
DAN ABRAMS, 'ABRAMS REPORT' HOST: All right, give us a sense of what we're talking about here. He is getting loaded onto a van; approximately how many corrections officers are with him when this is happening? Is he alone? Set the scene for us.
SHERIFF DAVID HAGGARD, ROANE COUNTY, TENN.: As I understand it, there were two corrections officers from Tennessee Department of Corrections that were on escort with this inmate. They had been into the courtroom where he'd pled guilty to another crime of robbery and I understand it, received six additional years to serve and as the officers were exiting the courthouse, coming down the steps and attempting to put him back into the van, Hyatte yelled out to his wife, “shoot them,” and she was already in the parking in a SUV and opened fire on the two corrections officers, striking one of those officers.
The other officer returned fire and we believe that Jennifer Hyatte was probably struck. Now, they exited the parking lot and abandoned their vehicle about half a mile from the courthouse and we believe that they picked up another vehicle, a Chevrolet van, and then left from that point.
ABRAMS: Why is it that you believe that she was struck? Was there blood on the driver's side?
HAGGARD: That's correct. Officers found at the scene that there was some blood on the driver's side of the vehicle that exited the parking lot when the escape was made.
ABRAMS: Now, he was in cuffs and leg restraints?
HAGGARD: He was in shackles, that's leg restraints plus cuffs and a belly chain and the cuffs are in a security box with a lock on it.
ABRAMS: Is there any indication that she got the key to that?
HAGGARD: There's no indication that there was a key and we felt that when he left the scene, he was still in shackles and still in restraints.
ABRAMS: And there's no doubt in your mind that his wife was the shooter, correct?
HAGGARD: According to the officer that was there on the scene, that was the situation. That she opened fire on them.
ABRAMS: Let's talk about the more important issue, which is the victim in this case, Wayne Cotton Morgan. Ms. Sluss, what can you tell us about him?
AMANDA SLUSS, TENN. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: Yes, Wayne Morgan is a 56-year-old employee of the Department of Corrections. He's been with us for 28 years, so you can imagine the devastation, not only at the Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, but across the board statewide with the Tennessee Department of Corrections that we've lost a man that has spent the past 28 years of his career servicing the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
ABRAMS: All right, so am I right that these two meet when she's a nurse in the prison where George Hyatte is serving time and that's why she loses her job?
SLUSS: It's my understanding that Jennifer Hyatte was employed as a contract nurse at one of our prisons that's located over in west Tennessee. She was terminated in August of 2004 and the reason for her termination was that they had reason to believe that she was carrying on a relationship with George Hyatte.
ABRAMS: How unusual is that to have someone fired for carrying on a relationship with an inmate?
SLUSS: Well, that wouldn't be unusual at all from the standpoint that as a matter of policy it is a violation for an employee of the department or a contract employee working for the department to have any type of a relationship with an in inmate from all levels of the formed relationship.
ABRAMS: This is not the first time that George Hyatte has escaped from custody and certainly not the first time he's tried, right?
SLUSS: It's my understanding that he does have at least one previous escape. He did escape from I believe the Rhea County jail back in '98 and he did received an additional three-year sentence for the felony escape charges and I've also been informed recently that he's had another escape since then. They have not been while he's been in the Department of Correction custody as the case was today.
ABRAMS: Now, Mr. Pope, so what do you know about this guy's past? This is a guy who has tried to escape on numerous occasions, correct?
JAMES POPE, RHEA COUNTY ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Yes sir. He's been charged in Rhea County Circuit Court at least four times with escape and that's just out of circuit court. That doesn't count any possible changes he may have previously had at a session's court.
ABRAMS: So that would mean that he would be considered a very, very serious flight risk and I assume that's why he was in all of those restraints, correct?
POPE: Well, yes sir. That's normal procedure, as I understand it, from the Department of Corrections. Any time we have someone transported from the Department of Corrections to the local court system for disposition of any sentences, they bring them shackled both handcuffs and leg irons and they will not take them off unless a judge gives them the OK to take them off.
ABRAMS: Now in addition to his escape efforts, what do you know about his criminal history.
POPE: Well he was serving the 35-year sentence out of our court for two counts of aggravated robbery and two counts of aggravated assault.
ABRAMS: What was that in connection with?
POPE: The aggravated robbery, he had two different counts. One where he pulled a knife on a young man and took $40 off of him and then he went into a convenience store on the other aggravated robbery and claimed he had a gun and took $4,500 off of a convenience clerk.
Then the two aggravated assaults were where he was in the Rhea County jail and he made his escape with another inmate where they got the keys away from him, used these real heavy metal keys, hit the jailer over the head with the keys and then also used a razor to threaten two of the guards with and made his escape from the Rhea County jail.
ABRAMS: This is a bad guy, a dangerous guy, right?
POPE: I would consider him so.
ABRAMS: Let's check in with the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the agency that's heading up the manhunt at this point, Mark Gwyn. What is the latest in terms of the search for Mr. Hyatte and his wife?
MARK GWYN, TENN. BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION DIRECTOR: Well obviously it's turned into an all-out manhunt. We have state and federal agents on the ground in all parts of the state, running leads as they come into our command center.
ABRAMS: Are you still looking for a gold, Chevrolet Ventura van?
GWYN: Yes, we are. We feel like that that was the vehicle in which they escaped from the county in, but as you may know, obviously, they've had time to switch vehicles but for right now, we're still looking for that gold Ventura van.
ABRAMS: Remind me how they got that van.
GWYN: Well, it's my understanding they had that van waiting on them. It was brought up here to Roane County possibly last night and placed in order to make this escape. We think it was a pretty well thought out escape plan by Mr. and Mrs. Hyatte.
ABRAMS: And is there anyone else who you believe may have been involved as well?
GWYN: We're looking into that aspect of this case. There very well could be. We just don't know exactly if other people knew exactly what was going to happen. That will just have to be part of the investigation as we go through it and determine who had involvement and to what degree they had the involvement.
ABRAMS: But it sounds like what you're talking about is in the planning. When it comes to the actual execution of this, it seems that it was just his wife and him?
GWYN: That's what it appears right now. Just his wife and Mr. Hyatte, but in the planning we'll just have to let the case evolve through interviews and we'll determine who had knowledge and what that knowledge was.
ABRAMS: Yes. And I assume you're getting and I hope you're getting in a lot of calls and leads, et cetera?
GWYN: We're getting in a lot of calls, a lot of leads. We're running a lot of leads. I believe in the end we'll be successful in apprehending these two dangerous individuals. Obviously, we have concern that most of all, we don't want any more loss of life. So these people are to be treated as armed and dangerous and we know what their propensity for violence is.
ABRAMS: Look, you just heard him say it. This is serious stuff. This woman is accused of shooting a long-time 28-year veteran, Wayne Cotton Morgan, who was married, had a son and a daughter, in an effort to help her husband escape from prison.
These two are believed to be together. She may be injured. If you know anything, please call one of those numbers right here: 1-800-824-3463 or 1-800-TBI-FIND.
Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.