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Louisiana authorities are searching for a convicted killer who was mistakenly freed from a state prison last week, a blunder that reportedly went unnoticed until a tipster called cops wondering why he was back on the street.
The fugitive, Benjuiel Johnson, 32, was released by the Department of Corrections on Sept. 22 after serving time for possession of weapons and stolen goods, an agency spokeswoman said. But the DOC didn't know that Johnson had also been sentenced to 40 years behind bars for killing a man in 2010, before his most recent prison stint began.
Instead, the department released Johnson to the custody of a local jail in East Feliciana Parish to face charges he'd assaulted a corrections officer last year.
Johnson then posted bail with help from his mother, the corrections spokesperson said.
A couple days later, Johnson was spotted in public 70 miles south in Iberville Parish, where the 2010 killing occurred, police said.
"We got a call Monday from someone saying they saw him and asking us why he was free," Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi told The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge.
Stassi told the paper that he then called the Department of Corrections. And the hunt was on.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Pam Laborde said that the department never received notification from authorities in Iberville Parish that he'd been convicted there of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 31-year-old Cordies Gales.
"Normally, in 99 percent of cases, the sheriff or the courts sends that information to the DOC," Laborde said. "That's how we calculate and recalculate (prison) time. But we didn't get that paperwork, so it wasn't in the file."
But Laborde also acknowledged that in preparation for Johnson's release, a DOC records analyst had reviewed Johnson's rap sheet and should have called Iberville herself.
"We'll be looking at ways to ensure we don't' have this issue again," Laborde said.
The U.S. Marshals Service is leading the hunt for Johnson, with help from the DOC, the Iberville Sheriff's Office and police in the town of Plaquemine, where Gales was killed.
Plaquemine Police Chief Kenny Payne said he and his officers knew Johnson well.
Payne said he was troubled by Johnson's inadvertent release.
"My issue is that, as simply as this occurred, why isn't it happening every day?" he said.