Eight inmates escape prison van in Oklahoma after driver leaves keys in ignition

This prison van, operated by a private Tennessee company, was found less than a mile from a hospital in Weatherford, Okla., where it had stopped so inmates could be treated Tuesday. Other inmates had driven off in it. Weatherford Daily News via AP

Eight inmates — one of them sporting a teddy bear T-shirt — were back in custody Wednesday after they escaped in a prison van whose guards left them alone with the key in the ignition and the motor running, Oklahoma authorities said.

Eleven out-of-state inmates were being transported Tuesday afternoon through Weatherford, Okla., about 50 miles west of Oklahoma City, when the van diverted to Weatherford Regional Hospital after one or two of them complained of feeling ill, police said.

Three of the inmates were taken into the hospital, where two of them were treated. There was no immediate explanation for why the third one went in.

That left eight inmates in the van unattended. And the keys were still in the ignition switch with the engine running because the driver wanted to leave the air conditioner on in 86-degree heat, police said.

Two of the men kicked through the security partition separating the passengers from the driver's seat, commandeered the van and drove off, police said.

Quoting a doctor at the hospital, The Weatherford Daily News reported that the driver, "in a heavy Southern accent, immediately came back into the ER and asked abruptly if anyone would have moved his van or if anyone knew what happened to it." 

The van, which was operated by Prisoner Transportation Services of Nashville, Tenn., was found less than a mile away — along with a shotgun that had been left inside. Most of the men were still locked up in the back, and six were taken back into custody immediately.

Two, however, ran away, and it took five hours before a Weatherford homeowner spotted them hiding in his back yard a couple of blocks away about 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET), NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City reported.

They were identified as Michael Coleman, who was being held on assault charges — he's the one who was wearing the black T-shirt with a teddy bear on it — and Lester Burns, who was being held on charges of failing to pay child support.

Prisoner Transportation Services said it had no comment because the investigation was ongoing. It was unclear where the van originally was headed.

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