Florida prison escapees had help from ‘gang’ behind bars, official says

Charles Walker, left, and Joseph Jenkins escaped from Franklin Correctional Institution in Carabelle, Fla., on falsified paperwork, but were captured on Oct. 19. Bay County Sheriff's Office

Two convicted killers who escaped from a Florida prison using falsified documents had the help of a "gang" of inmates who produced the bogus papers inside the prison, the state's top law enforcement officer said Wednesday.

The group was apparently able to file the paperwork with the Orange County Clerk of Courts with assistance from outside members, Gerald Bailey, Florida Department of Claw Enforcement Commissioner, told lawmakers.

"We have confidential sources within the inmates that are telling us the documents were generated within the walls of the prison, sent out and then sent to the clerk’s office by other people," he said, reported The Orlando Sentinel.

Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, were mistakenly freed from the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carabelle, Fla., on Sept. 27 and Oct. 8, respectively, after fake documents bearing the signatures of a judge and members of the State Attorney's Office got through the Florida Department of Corrections and the Orange County Clerk of Courts.

Once the mistakes were realized, their early releases prompted a massive manhunt, which ended on Oct. 19 when the two men were arrested at the Coconut Grove Motor Inn in Panama City, Fla.

Law enforcement had been aware for months that falsified paperwork schemes were possible, the Sentinel reported, even working in the past with another prisoner at a different prison. 

But it spread to Franklin Correctional Institution without them knowing.

"A gang behind the walls ... was teaching this fraudulent activity," Bailey told a Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations committee Wednesday, according to the Sentinel.

The prison breakout prompted Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews to implement a new policy requiring that any inmate's early release be confirmed by the sentencing judge, an additional security step.

Also this week, Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed that a cellphone and iPad were discovered in the motel room that the men were arrested in, and at least one also had access to a second, contraband cellphone in prison before they escaped.

"One inmate was found with a contraband cell phone, and we know he used the cellphone while he was in prison, and we are examining evidence on that cellphone," Samantha Andrews, spokeswoman for Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said. "It belonged to an inmate, but we are not discussing which one. Everything is still part of the active investigation."

The phone contained "texts and some other evidence," she said, but wouldn't go into detail.

It's unclear how the contraband phone got behind bars. Florida Department of Corrections deputy communications director Misty Cash said the investigation was ongoing.

Bailey said more arrests are imminent. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Attorney General's Office are offering up to $20,000 for tips.