ORLANDO, Fla. – Within days of strolling out of prison without a hitch, two convicted killers freed by bogus paperwork went to a jail about 300 miles away and registered as felons, records showed. They were even fingerprinted, photographed and filled out paperwork to apparently keep up the ruse.
Authorities are now searching for Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who were mistakenly freed from a Panhandle prison within the last month. Both men were serving life in prison but were let go when authorities said forged documents duped the Corrections Department and court system and reduced their sentences to 15 years.
"We're looking at the system's breakdown, I'm not standing here to point the finger at any one at this time," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men. He said he believed they were still in the central Florida area.
The release led prosecutors and prison officials to review their records to make sure no one else had been mistakenly freed. The corrections agency also changed its policy to require officials to verify all early releases with judges.
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail in Orlando on Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered there three days later.
Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
By registering, Jenkins and Walker likely drew less attention to themselves.
"If there's no hit that comes back, they're free to go," said Isaiah Dennard, the Florida Sheriff's Association's jail services coordinator.
If felons do not register, a warrant is put out for their arrest, Dennard said.
The sheriff said there had been some sightings of the men, and "most" of their families were cooperating, but he didn't go into specifics about either detail. Police were offering a $5,000 reward for help and billboards were going up in the area.
Authorities learned about the mistaken release when one of the murder victim's family notified the state attorney's office. Dennard said victims' families are automatically notified when a felon is released, typically by a computer voice-generated phone call.
It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor's office and judge.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.
Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention, including that's it uncommon for a request for sentence reduction to come from prosecutors.
The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County Clerk of Court's website and calling them.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges -- and not just court clerks -- before releasing prisoners early.
Sen. Greg Evers, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he spoke to Perry on Friday and that the judge will offer a proposal in which judges review all early release documents before court clerks send them to prisons.
"They're working on some fail safe plans," said Evers, a Pensacola Republican. "If the court administrator put these plans in place throughout the state it will solve the problem."
New measures were implemented in the Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts Office after workers there thwarted the release of a burglary suspect from forged paperwork in 2011. The changes included only accepting judge's orders from the judge's assistant and to treat them especially carefully, said Cindy Guerra, chief operating officer for the office.
"That situation in Orlando, that just doesn't happen here," said her colleague, Louis Tomeo, the office's director of criminal courts. "Our clerks, I venture to say, would have picked up on that easily."
As the Florida court system transitions into a paperless era, special email accounts have been set up for judges. The deadline to go completely electronic is February, though it has already been moved back several times.
Across the country, prisoners have had varying success trying to escape using bogus documents. In 2010, a Wisconsin killer forged documents that shortened his prison sentence and he walked free, only to be captured a week later. In 2012, a prisoner in Pennsylvania was let out with bogus court documents, and the mistake was only discovered months later.
Jenkins, 34, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man.
State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton said he learned Jenkins had been released when Pugh's family contacted his office. They reviewed the paperwork and found that it was a fake, then notified law enforcement.
Later, they discovered Walker's release documents were also fake.
"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," Ashton said.
Walker, 34, was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County. He told investigators that 23-year-old Cedric Slater was bullying him and he fired three shots intending to scare him.
Ashton said another man serving a life sentence for attempting to kill a law enforcement officer was also scheduled to be released using forged documents, but an investigator discovered the scheme in the spring before any release.