Investigation: Over 150 Tenn. prison escapees still at large - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Investigation: Over 150 Tenn. prison escapees still at large

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - More than 150 men and women who escaped from Tennessee's prison system during the past three decades remain at large, according to a recent investigation.

Of the 48 states that track such data, only California and New York have more unsolved prison escapes, The Tennessean found.

Several reasons were cited for the number of uncaught inmates in Tennessee. They include state correction officials and local sheriffs being at odds over who's responsible for tracking county jail escapees, and missing or purged arrest warrants.

More than one-third of the state's escapees have no active arrest warrant, so if they are picked up elsewhere by police, there is no way for authorities to know they are wanted in Tennessee for a prison escape, according to the investigation.

Victims like Debra Ferguson Shales find that disturbing. Her father's killer, Billy Wayne Hayes, escaped and remained on the loose for more than 30 years until his recapture in December.

The warrant identifying Hayes as a prison escapee vanished years ago, so despite being arrested three times in Nashville, including once for aggravated assault, he was set free without doing any serious time.

"I don't understand the justice there," Shales said. "My daddy's not going to move from where he's at. But this guy's feet can keep him walking wherever he wants to go."

In Tennessee, the Department of Correction has placed the responsibility of finding those state inmates on the sheriff's departments in the counties where they escaped.

However, several sheriffs say counties don't have enough officers to conduct those investigations.

Jefferson County Sheriff David Davenport, who heads the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, said tracking fugitives to faraway counties or other states is virtually impossible for local agencies struggling to pay for enough jail guards.

But state correction officials say they assist counties with local searches when asked. "Let me tell you, I've never seen a DOC person come up here to assist anybody in this area," Davenport said. Larger counties, like Davidson, have also struggled to catch escaped prisoners.

At least 11 of Tennessee's outstanding fugitives escaped from Metro's custody since 1975, in the days before jail overcrowding forced Nashville to stop housing state prisoners in 1990.

Sheriff Daron Hall said the state prisoners who broke free from Metro's custody years ago are not being sought by sheriff's investigators. Instead, he said the department expects that active warrants will trigger their arrests.

But according to a search of county records, more than half of the state inmates who escaped from Metro don't have active arrest warrants. "I didn't know that," Hall said upon learning of the problem.

That's because some escape warrants may never have been filed, authorities say, or they're being purged by county prosecutors after several years.

That's been the case in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, where more than half of the state's unsolved escapes occurred. At the Shelby County district attorney general's office in Memphis, prosecutors routinely threw out old escape warrants along with misdemeanors and other minor felony charges.

But after The Tennessean alerted Shelby County officials that at least two warrants for fugitives had been purged, the county changed its practice.

"In an escape case we should not have done this, that's the charge that could at least get them picked up on that outstanding warrant," said James Challen, deputy district attorney in Shelby County.

Last week, seven inmates escaped from the Hamblen County Jail, about 40 miles northeast of Knoxville. They were all recaptured.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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