McMinn Co. jail escapees back in custody

McMinn Co. jail escapees back in custody

September 8, 2006

ATHENS (WATE) -- Two inmates who escaped early Friday morning from the McMinn County Jail in Athens were captured after being on the run for most of the day.

McMinn County Sheriff Steve Frisbie and U.S. Marshals Service officer Warren Mays, Jr. told 6 News that Clifford "Rocky" Howard and Christopher Johnson were back in custody after being caught in the homes of family members.

Both inmates were captured less than 10 miles from the jail.

According to Mays, successful police negotiations ended the manhunt without incident. Sheriff's deputies spent a long time on the phone negotiating with family members of the two inmates and it paid off.

Johnson was captured around 8:00 p.m. near a relative's home in nearby Calhoun.

Howard was taken into custody about two hours later in the Short Creek community.

The U.S. Marshals Service had offered a $3,000 reward each for their capture. While it is not clear whether anyone will get the reward money, officers say the offer helped.

As soon as information about the reward was broadcast, the sheriff's department's phones started ringing.

Prosecutors will have to decide whether anyone will be charged in helping the inmates escape.

The Smoky Mountains Fugitive Task Force, a part of the U.S. Marshals Service, had been called in to help with the search.

Howard and Johnson had been gone for more than two hours before officers missed them Friday morning. Overcrowding, understaffing and a computer problem that unsecured all the doors all contributed to the escape.

Sheriff Frisbie said each man was being held in a separate cell in maximum security.  

The escape began when one of the inmates pretended to be sick. When a guard entered his cell shortly after 3:00 a.m., the inmate overpowered him, stealing his keys and radio. Then he let the other inmate out of his cell.

The pair then broke into the jail courtyard through a side door. There, they scaled a wall, ripped a chain link fence out of their way, crawled through onto the roof, crawled across that and dropped 15 feet into the yard by the parking lot. Then they fled.

Authorities believe the inmates escaped in a white Ford Taurus with a blue passenger side door that had been stolen near the jail.

The department says Howard was picked up Thursday as a suspect in a rash of rest stop robberies along I-75 and Johnson was being held on a murder charge.

A patrol officer getting gas for his vehicle saw the jailer more than two hours after the escape as he banged on a cell window and showed his badge. The jailer wasn't injured.

The sheriff told 6 News he's been dealing with overcrowding and understaffing at the jail for several years. Only four jailers were watching over 220 inmates during Friday's escape.

A new computer system is planned for the facility. The sheriff said the funding has already been approved.

6 News Reporter SONU WASU contributed to this report.

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