Authorities searched for two prison inmates Friday who managed to flee the back of a fortified prison van along a desolate stretch of New Mexico highway in an escape that went unnoticed for as long as five hours.
It wasn't known exactly where or when the two, both felons with violent criminal backgrounds, managed to escape the van transporting them to a correctional facility in Las Cruces. Authorities said the getaway happened somewhere after a prison-stop in Roswell, where corrections staff last reported seeing the two early Wednesday evening.
The van stopped for gas at 8:30 p.m. in the desert town of Artesia, and it was not until nearly 1 a.m. Thursday, as the van pulled into a state prison in Las Cruces, that corrections officers realized two prisoners were gone.
More than three hours later, Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah managed to travel more than 200 miles north to Albuquerque where surveillance video from a hotel lobby showed Clah in a red T-shirt and jeans and Cruz wearing tan, collared shirt and jeans. Corrections officials said they had been wearing white jumpsuits and were bound by leg and arm shackles in the van.
The escape has raised concerns that major missteps during the transport or on the part of corrections personnel allowed Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery, to evade authorities and flee north before anyone noticed they were missing.
State officials also waited several more hours after the discovery to alert the public that the men -- who a corrections spokeswoman said should be considered "armed and dangerous" -- were on the loose.
"In almost every case that you have a set of circumstances like this, it is not a matter of a lack of policies, a lack of systems, a lack of structure," said Gregg Marcantel, the state corrections secretary. "It's a matter of somehow or another we failed in that structure."
Albuquerque police said they had set up a search perimeter on the city's northwest side, but announced early Friday that the effort had concluded and the convicts were still at large.
Cruz, 32, was convicted in 2007 of killing a man over drugs in Raton in northern New Mexico. Clah, 29, was convicted in Farmington in 2009 of armed robbery and assault with intent to commit a violent felony on a peace officer. Both have distinctive tattoos on their arms and neck, with authorities saying Clah also has feathers inked on his left cheek.
"Pretty hard to miss," Marcantel said.
Yet the men continued to elude authorities.
At a news conference Thursday in Santa Fe, Marcantel said investigators were trying to determine if the escape was planned or spontaneous. Authorities said the two were bound by shackles in the van and it was unclear how they got out.
"This must be investigated as something more organized," he said. "We can't just assume an opportunity (presented itself)."
The escape comes several months after Corrections Department officials warned of dangerously low staffing levels at prison facilities across the state and said low wages made it difficult to retain staffers.
The search was joined by the U.S. Border Patrol and local police departments, and it involved dogs, aircraft and foot patrols. State police also were seeking surveillance footage from the gas station in Artesia where the van had stopped.