SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Authorities were searching Friday for two violent convicts who escaped from a prisoner transport van and likely got a head start of several hours in a rural area of New Mexico before guards realized they were gone.
The prisoners — both felons with violent criminal backgrounds — made their escape somewhere along a New Mexico highway, clad in white jumpsuits and last accounted for in the back of a state corrections van where authorities said they were bound by shackles.
Joseph Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Lionel Clah, who was serving time for armed robbery, managed to escape from the van transporting them to a correctional facility in Las Cruces.
Authorities have only confirmed that the getaway happened somewhere after a prison-stop in Roswell — a city about 200 miles from Las Cruces, and where corrections staff reported last seeing Cruz and Clah around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
According to authorities, correction officers didn't even realize the men were missing until about 1 a.m. Thursday. By 4:30 a.m., the two had managed to travel more than 200 miles north to Albuquerque, where surveillance video that surfaced Thursday afternoon showed Clah wearing a red T-shirt and jeans and Cruz wearing a tan, collared shirt and jeans. The video was from a hotel lobby.
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"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."
The inmates' escape has raised concerns that major missteps during the transport or on the part of corrections personnel allowed for Clah and Cruz 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.
They still hadn't been apprehended by early Friday. Albuquerque police said they had set up a search perimeter on the city's northwest side, but announced at 1 a.m. that the effort had concluded and the convicts were still at large.
Cruz, 32, was convicted in 2007 for 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 maintained that his department's policies weren't to blame in the case. He also said investigators were trying to determine if the escape was planned or spontaneous.
"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.