ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A corrections officer came under scrutiny for her handling of inmate transports long before authorities say two violent felons escaped from a fortified prison van and slipped past her this month at a rural New Mexico gas station.
In a lawsuit in federal court, Taracina Morgan, a New Mexico prison guard for more than a decade, is accused of leaving a van full of shackled inmates unattended in a hot vehicle for up to an hour in July 2013. A corrections spokeswoman said an internal investigation cleared Morgan of the allegations, though the civil case brought by one of the inmates against the department, Morgan and another guard has not yet been resolved in court.
"It became clear to to the men they had been abandoned," the lawsuit filed by Matthew Coyte, an attorney for former inmate Isaha Casias said, describing a scene of panic in the crowded vehicle as it was parked outside the state penitentiary.
Now Morgan, 38, and fellow guard Michael Ortega are on administrative leave as state police investigate the escape two weeks ago of inmates Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah, who authorities say picked the locks on their handcuffs with some sort of wire and then fled the fortified van during a fuel stop in Artesia, a desert town roughly halfway between Albuquerque and the Mexico border.
Officials disclosed in documents obtained through a records request by The Associated Press on Monday that Morgan and Ortega were the guards in charge of taking Cruz and Clah from the state penitentiary in Santa Fe to a correctional facility in Las Cruces the night they escaped.
The inmates were apprehended days later in Albuquerque, but authorities have declined to say what missteps by corrections staff may have led to the escape and how two inmates wearing white prison jumpsuits and bound by leg irons were able to flee the van and get by Morgan and Ortega during the gas stop around 8:30 p.m. March 9.
Policies require transport officers to guard prison vans at all times, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza.
Officials didn't know Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery and shooting at a police officer, were missing until about four hours laters, authorities said.
In the lawsuit brought by Casias, the former inmate, Morgan is accused of leaving 11 inmates to suffer on July 11, 2013, inside a van. Some prisoners passed out, including Casias, of Hesperus, Colorado, while others yelled and rocked the van in an effort to seek help, according to the lawsuit.
A phone call seeking comment from Morgan's attorney was not immediately returned Monday.
Casias, who says he was denied treatment for days, is seeking compensation for emotional distress and physical injuries, including a seizure that the lawsuit suggests was caused by conditions inside the van. He said he also suffered wrist and back pain when he fell out of the vehicle while unconscious from the heat.
Several people have been arrested in aiding the escape by Cruz and Clah, including a man who spotted the men along the road, cut off their shackles, and then helped them flee more than 200 miles north to Albuquerque, authorities said.