02/18/2006

Sheriff, under fire for Chicago jail escapes, recaptures woman

By TARA BURGHART
Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO- A series of escapes from the county jail was already bizarre: In one case, an inmate slipped into a laundry truck to flee. In another, a guard is accused of helping six others breaking out to boost the political campaign of a sheriff's candidate.

On Friday, the trend turned even more strange when Sheriff Michael Sheahan personally apprehended the latest fugitive, a woman who authorities said escaped from a hospital when her guard left to take a phone call.

The escape of Lawanda Warren, 40, who was being held on drug possession charges, was the third from Cook County Jail or its personnel in eight days.

"You can't trust a prisoner, and this is just another example of an individual that works for us that made a mistake, and he'll be dealt with," Sheahan said.

Before this month, no inmates had escaped from the jail in the previous 10 years. Cook County Jail typically houses 10,000 inmates.

Sheahan said he tracked Warren down on the west side of Chicago using a list of addresses she had used in the past. At Warren's mother's house, family members speaking to her over the phone were able to persuade her to talk to the sheriff and tell him where she was staying.

The sheriff picked Warren up about two hours after she escaped; she was then taken to the hospital on the Cook County Jail grounds, he said.

On Feb. 10, a member of an inmate work crew slipped out of jail in a laundry truck; he was caught the next day, but that night six more inmates escaped. All were recaptured in just over 24 hours.

In addition, a woman visiting her inmate boyfriend allegedly smuggled in a gun through a plexiglass divider, resulting in a Feb. 1 shooting that left three inmates with minor injures.

After more than 15 years in the position, Sheahan is not running for re-election. But his chief of staff, Tom Dart, is running as a candidate in the Democratic primary next month against Richard Remus and Sylvester Baker Jr.

The sheriff's office said jail guard Darin Gater was trying to aid Remus' campaign by embarrassing Sheahan when he allegedly helped six inmates break out last weekend by handcuffing himself and handing over his uniform, ID and keys.

Remus, Gater's former supervisor at the jail, is not accused of any involvement or knowledge about the jail break. Gater's defense attorneys, Remus and prison experts have characterized the alleged motivation as ranging from dubious to ridiculous.

Gater was charged with aggravated battery of a correctional officer, aggravated arson, escape and official misconduct, among other charges.

He declared his innocence when he was freed on bond earlier this week, and his defense attorneys have claimed officials coerced him into stating that he assisted in the escape.

A recent outside report by corrections experts commissioned by the county found the sheriff's office needs to hire about 670 new correctional officers and fill about 130 jobs left vacant by disability and maternity leaves.

Republican sheriff's candidate Peter Garza argues the safety breakdowns are the result of an office that is too focused on political patronage.

"You know you've reached the tipping point when the sheriff, with 8,000 employees and a $4 million budget, goes out and makes the arrest himself," said Garza's spokesman, Ryan Cudney. "This wasn't leadership. The sheriff went it alone _ almost like Rambo."

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Associated Press writer Karen Hawkins in Chicago contributed to this report.

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