KOLD INVESTIGATES: Pima County jailbreak raises lots of questions

Updated: Sep. 16, 2020 at 10:48 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - An inmate escaped from jail in Pima County early this year.

For 11 hours, no one noticed.

KOLD News 13 wanted to know what went wrong so we got the answers.

“You have inmates, that manipulated what was transpiring and fooled the officers,” said Captain Sean Stewart, Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

Stewart described the escape of 29-year-old Jose Fernandez in April.

Jose Fernandez escaped Pima County Jail according to PCSD
Jose Fernandez escaped Pima County Jail according to PCSD(Pima County Sheriff's Department)

“He shimmied up this pole, was able to position himself high enough to use his shoulder to start popping a couple welds that were up there," he said. "He got two or three welds loose and then he was able to crawl in between the metal beam and the chain link at the top of the yard.”

Once on the roof, pictures show, Fernandez took off his jail clothes before jumping down.

“I know that he had cut himself in a couple places due to the chain link and him squeezing in between because we found blood on the roof,” Stewart said.

Many questions about the fact that he was able to escape but even more questions about what happened directly after. Nothing. No one noticed he was missing until about eleven hours later. How could that happen?

KOLD Investigator Wendi Redman dug through more than 200 pages of an internal investigation to find out.

According to the documents, he escaped at 4:06 p.m. April 7.

Sometime after dinner, during a head count, another inmate sat on his bunk bed to apparently hide he was missing. Around 3 a.m. the next day, officers noticed he may be missing and started looking for him. By 4 a.m. they notified the sergeant that he was gone. Later, they called authorities to let them know about the escaped inmate.

So, what went wrong and were proper procedures followed after his escape?

“Proper procedures to an extent were followed,” Stewart said. “I believe they took a little bit too long to ascertain whether the person was at medical, was at somewhere else, wasn’t still in the facility.”

It also seems there could have been a couple of times corrections officers could have noticed he was missing earlier, but didn’t. One example of this is during a hard headcount after dinner that was not done according to how it should have been done. The report also indicates at dinner time they didn’t keep track of the food trays they were handing out.

“Yes, they’re supposed to check off names to ensure everybody got their meal," said Cpt. Stewart. "Um, I don’t have an answer for that because I don’t know, but I believe somebody probably came up and got his tray for him.”

When it comes down to it, Captain Stewart believes the officers were simply fooled when another inmate pretended to be Fernandez during a head count.

“One inmate snuck around and then got in the bunk and he got checked off twice. So, was that a mistake? Yeah, it was a mistake on the officer but could that have happened to any one of us trying to do our duty? Yes.”

Were there warning signs Fernandez was a flight risk? Stewart said, not at the time.

However, later their internal investigation uncovered a phone call the day before the escape.

It’s a conversation between Fernandez and his mother. In Spanish, he told his mother he was really close to leaving but wasn’t going to do it because he would get another five years.

In Fernandez’s statement to investigators, he said when he was looking at how he would escape it “seemed kind of easy.”

He later said as soon as he did it, he regretted it.

“I guess, in hindsight, I or my lieutenant probably should’ve gone up and checked to make sure those welds were secure enough," Stewart said.

Stewart said he and his team are looking to take steps to make sure it never happens again.

“We had an engineer come out and take a look at that fencing material up there to make it escape proof,” he said. “We also required more often, checks where all the inmates had to be back sitting in their bunks and the officer would go around with the card and make sure that the face matched the card.”

According to authorities, they captured Fernandez at a homeless tent area near Valencia and Park, about 28 hours after the escape.

He denied our request for an interview. He pleaded guilty to four different cases against him including attempt to commit aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and second-degree escape. He now faces the possibility of more the 31 years behind bars. He’ll be sentenced Oct. 9.

Stewart said no one with the jail is facing disciplinary action at this time.

Copyright 2020 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.