By Ellen Thompson
Stockton Record (CA)
FRENCH CAMP, Calif. — Changes are under way at the San Joaquin County Jail and Superior Court since Eric Hu escaped from the jail last month, sheriff's officials said.
Hu is still at large, and investigators say they are looking for the 32-year-old fugitive, who is suspected of attempted murder and other crimes.
An internal probe into Hu's April 9 escape from the jail revealed at least one mistake by an unidentified deputy who did not walk inmates returning from court to the minimum-security Honor Farm, said Deputy Les Garcia, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
That deputy was not disciplined, Garcia said. Officials called for more training for deputies who transport inmates, and a gate was added at the Honor Farm. Officials also made changes to courthouse security, where Hu's escape plot began. Three checkpoints were added, along with an additional corrections officer.
Security concerns at the aging courthouse are not new. A 2003 survey of California's roughly 400 courthouses flagged San Joaquin County's aging Superior Court among the nine in the state most in need of renovation or reconstruction. Courthouse administrator Rosa Junqueiro said one of the four categories judged was security. Junqueiro said the county should have a new courthouse as early as 2012. Until then, officials say changes made since Hu's escape will help.
Hu escaped after swapping clothes with a co-defendant in a car theft case after the two were placed in a holding cell following a morning court appearance, Garcia said. Hu changed his orange jumpsuit that identified him as jail-bound for the blue uniform of his friend, Christopher Montano, who bears a close resemblance to Hu and was headed for the Honor Farm.
Windows line two sides of the courthouse holding cell where the two were kept with dozens of other inmates, but a toilet stall provides a space where inmates could easily change clothes, said Capt. Larry Mendoza, who oversees security for the courthouse.
Garcia said it was a novel strategy, but jailers have to be prepared for anything.
"(Inmates) have nothing else to do but study the system," he said.
After changing clothes, the pair boarded a bus to the jail, where they lined up according to their destinations, like passengers might line up at a bus terminal, Garcia said.
When Montano was checked back into the jail, a correction's officer noticed his face did not match his identification badge. The officer alerted a supervisor, who called the Honor Farm and ordered a lockdown.
About that time, Hu was seen getting into the open sliding door of an idling van, believed to have been driven by the woman Hu is accused of trying to kill, his girlfriend, Erica Munoz.
"We just missed him," Garcia said.
Police say they just missed catching Hu again April 27, when officers spotted him getting into another van in a north Stockton neighborhood. Police arrested the man they saw driving Hu, 36-year-old Robert Oki, but Hu got out of the van and ran across Interstate 5.
Information from Oki's arrest led police to a nearby apartment, where they found Munoz. She was arrested in connection with Hu's escape. Montano and Oki also face charges in connection with his escape - Oki for aiding in an escape after the fact.
Garcia said checkpoints at the jail and courthouse, where officers will make sure inmates are wearing the right badge and uniform, will prevent future escapes like Hu's.
Checkpoints will improve in six months with the use of a fingerprint scanner on order for the courthouse, Mendoza said. The system, called Live ID, is used by some deputies on patrol and during booking at the jail. It scans a person's index finger and identifies anyone in the county database.
Hu was the first inmate to escape from the jail since one man escaped in 1995. Prior to that, six inmates left together in 1993. Garcia said improvements to the jail were made in response to those escapes.
One inmate from the 1993 jailbreak remains at large: Jesse Rodriguez, 39, who was arrested in connection with a homicide. Garcia said investigators believe he is in Mexico.
The Fox show "America's Most Wanted" has joined in the search for Hu by posting information about him on its Web site, www.amw.com.
Copyright 2007 Stockton Record
Safety concerns at Calif. courthouse following prisoner's escape