In Russell County Jail escape, echoes of previous jailbreaks

The jailbreak Thursday evening by three Russell County Jail inmates will likely raise fresh questions about the security of a facility that has had a history of inmates escaping.

At least one of the inmates, Charles Smith, who was captured this morning after allegedly committing a burglary in Ladonia, had been involved in an attempted escape in December that prompted a lockdown of the facility for more than a week.

But Thursday’s escape was more reminiscent of a January 2006 jailbreak by a trio of men charged with murder, an incident that made national headlines and led to an overhaul of jail policies. That escape was pulled off by Brent E. Martin, a double murderer who now sits on Alabama’s death row, along with accomplices Lamar E. Benton and Johnny E. Jones.

Those inmates overpowered guards, stabbing one correctional officer 15 times with a shank improvised from a mop bucket handle. The buckets had been used by inmates to clean their cells, but were jettisoned, along with bunk beds bearing metal springs, in the aftermath of the escape.

Martin's freedom was short-lived; he was captured just a few hours after his escape after investigators spotted him in the woods using a body heat scanner.

"When most of these guys break out of jail they have no money, so unless they get help from the outside, they’ve got nowhere to go," said Assistant District Attorney Buster Landreau.

Martin, like other escapees, was cut badly scaling the facility’s razor-wire fence. Benton and Jones, meanwhile, kept the Chattahoochee Valley on edge until their capture three days later at a motel on Victory Drive in Columbus. (An informant had tipped a sheriff’s deputy as to their whereabouts.)

Benton later hanged himself in his jail cell. Jones, 23, is serving life in prison for the murder of a 2-year-old girl.

Tommy Boswell, the long-time Russell County sheriff in office at the time, declined to discuss the 2006 escape or any security issues with the jail.

"It was five years ago," he said by phone. "I just don’ thave anything to say about it."

In January 2007, inmate Marshall Allen Guss of Seale, Ala., made a run for freedom while taking out the trash with a corrections officer and three other inmates. Guss, who worked as a baker in the jail’s kitchen, hopped the back fence, slashing open his arms, and ran into the woods. He was caught about five hours later walking through a field off U.S. 431. Guss, 54, now is serving a 99-year prison term for trafficking methamphetamine.

Earlier escapes were blamed on a combination of human error and oversights by a jail contractor, faults that weren't immediately found after the lockup's completion in 1991.

In October 1994, Roy Spencer Edwards also used a mop bucket handle to escape. Authorities said he whittled away a concrete holding block with the make-shift tool, and crawled to freedom through an air duct in an adjoining room.

At a press briefing this morning, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor declined to describe how the most recent escapees got out, citing the pending investigation. But he cautioned against a rush to judgment.

“I think there will definitely be some changes as far as the policies and things like that,” Taylor said. He added that, “it’s not clear as to how much policy the Sheriff’s Office violated versus how much this was just a freak accident that somebody escaped.”

“I’ll deal with the repercussions of how they escaped and that whole issue once I have them in custody,” Taylor said.