KOLD Investigates: Dangerous Pima County inmate practiced escape before breaking out

Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 2:37 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A dangerous Pima County inmate didn’t just break out of jail last year. 

Authorities say he practiced his escape and he did it all flying under the radar of corrections officers.

It took a year and a half to get video of the escape but now, for the first time, we are seeing inmate Jose Fernandez break out of the Pima County minimum security jail.

On April 7, 2020 at 4:06pm, Fernandez can bee seen casually walking up to a pole in the corner of an outdoor yard. He quickly shimmies up to the top of the block wall as a dozen inmates stop their volleyball game to watch.  His foot dangles as he works to squeeze through the chain-link fence above.

The other inmates then pick back up their game. Fernandez comes in and out of the screen for several seconds as he efforts his escape to the jail roof on the other side of the fence. Then, Fernandez slides back down to the block wall right be he busts out.

He’s gone in roughly 60 seconds. This dangerous inmate facing charges including attempt to commit aggravated assault with a deadly weapon easily escaped into the community.  It was brazen, done in broad daylight, with other inmates watching.

However, apparently no corrections officers were.

”I believe that a number of things happened that day, after reviewing it with you, that could’ve easily been avoided had people just done their job,” said Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos.

Nanos was not the sheriff at the time of the escape. But, he is now shedding new light on what happened. Reportedly, Fernandez had the opportunity to practice his flee for freedom in the days before. And that was also caught on video. But, once again, not caught by officers. 

He can be seen in the video doing a test run, partially climbing a pole.

”That should’ve never happened.  Somebody should’ve spotted that and seen that,” said Sheriff Nanos. 

Last year, KOLD News 13 got the Detail Incident Report. However, it was redacted in certain areas, posing questions about the security of the jail. Was there was a gap in the fenced enclosure or did Fernandez bust through?  Now, Sheriff Nanos is un-redacting that report.

Sans the black marks, it’s revealed one account said Fernandez “scaled the fence and started pushing on the fencing at the top.  He was able to find a gap and he squeezed through.”

The unredacted report also included a whole new section not in the initial report given to KOLD News 13.  It said the welds were not done properly leaving them quote “ineffective” and “easily compromised.”

Regardless of any gap or welding issue, Nanos said, it still should have never happened.

”This was a failure to do your job.  More so than it was ever any failure on the part of the building or its security,” he said. “Those yards are to be watched when inmates are out there all the time.  There’s no excuse for it.  Even if you don’t have staffing to do that, then you don’t give them yard.”

According to Nanos, there were multiple points at which this jailbreak could have been prevented: catching the escape in the act, catching the practice runs, or catching a phone call with his mother saying he was thinking about it.

”We constantly review, we have a team, intel officers who review every conversation that comes into that facility in and out,” he said.

And this was only the beginning of the staff mistakes, Nanos said.  After the escape, it took 11 hours for corrections officers to even notice he was gone.

Captain Sean Stewart said last year the officers were tricked after the escape when another inmate sat on Fernandez’ bunk bed to help hide the fact that he was not there during a head count.

“You have inmates that manipulated what was transpiring and fooled the officers,” said Steward.

But to Nanos, he said, it almost looks like a “witch hunt,” to say there’s a reason why an inmate did that. The bottom line, he said, was that there are procedures to keep it from happening and they weren’t followed.

”We have a practice in place that says, ‘If I look at this card and I see you sitting on a bunk and you’re not the picture on this card, then I have a problem,’” he said.

It’s absolutely failure on the part of the staff he said, and jailbreaks like these aren’t common.

“Since that building was built in the early, mid 80′s we’ve never had an escape until this one here,” said Nanos.

But could it happen again?

“Absolutely. I mean when you have people held some place they don’t want to be held, anything’s possible,” he said. “Chris Nanos isn’t going to prevent all escapes. It’s just not possible. But I think if we really believe in what we teach and how we train and in our policies, then we should be OK.”

In September, authorities said they hadn’t taken any disciplinary actions against jail staff. Now, a corrections sergeant has gotten a letter of counseling and a corrections officer received a letter of reprimand.

As of last September, no employees faced any disciplinary action.  Now, we asked again.  We are told one corrections sergeant received a letter of counseling and one corrections officer received a letter of reprimand.

As for Inmate Jose Fernandez, he was captured the next day and sentenced to a year and a half for the escape and an additional six years for his initial charges.

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