Willie Capers Williams gave every sign that he would try to bust out of the Fairfax County jail. He had tried several times before -- once by bolting from a police cruiser, once by stealing a lab coat and stethoscope.

A memo on the jail's bulletin board noted that Williams was an "extreme escape risk . . . and will do whatever is necessary to get out of jail."

Despite the warning, Williams and another inmate, Todd Hiney, were able to escape Friday. Hiney ripped a stone slab from a table bolted to the cell wall and used it as a battering ram to smash a hole through the concrete wall. Then the two ruffled their bed covers to make it look as if they were sleeping and climbed 23 feet down the outside wall on sheets they had braided together.

Williams, 29, a convicted burglar, was apprehended Saturday in Baltimore. Hiney, 38, serving a 38-year term for robbery, was still at large.

Yesterday, the escape ignited a political debate between the man who supervises the jail, Fairfax County Sheriff Carl R. Peed, and a former sheriff's deputy, Stanley G. Barry, who is trying to unseat Peed in the November election.

The sheriff, a Republican, oversees the 589-bed jail and courthouse security. The Democratic challenger contends that Peed's mismanagement led to ill-trained guards who let the inmates slip away. Peed defended the guards and placed the blame on construction flaws in the jail building.

"It was absolutely preventable," said Barry, 41, who had been a deputy for 19 years before Peed fired him last month for making the run for public office. "There is a lack of leadership, and it's starting to show."

Peed vehemently disagreed and accused the challenger of "politicizing" the issue. "He's off the mark completely," Peed said. "We've been in this building for 21 years, and this is a design flaw and a construction flaw. It's not a staff issue."

Barry, who is the son of state Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), said yesterday that Peed ignored staff recommendations to require that all guards receive the six-month police academy training before they begin work. Currently, new hires -- including the guard on duty at the time of the escape -- begin work immediately.

"They get hired off the street, and they work the cells the next day," Barry said.

For instance, he said, a trained deputy would have known immediately whether someone was sleeping in his bed or not.

Peed countered that although the new hires do not receive the academy training right away, they are trained and supervised before being assigned independent duty.

He said the problems with jail construction include the fact that the exterior walls are made of poured concrete, with too much distance between the internal steel bars that support the walls.

Katherine K. Hanley (D-At Large), chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, said yesterday that she couldn't understand how the inmates were able to escape. "The only thing I can say is that the sheriff is responsible for jail security. We're relying on him to keep the inmates in jail," she said.

Sheriff's Deputy James Vickery said investigators believe Hiney began punching out the hole while work crews were using jackhammers and other loud equipment for the construction of a new jail next door. Hiney, who is 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds, used a 24-by-10-inch stone slab pried from the table as a tool.

Williams had managed to jam the electronic locks on his cell so that he could open the door, Vickery said.

About 10 p.m., Hiney was let out of his cell to use the telephone, leaving his door open for Williams. Once both were inside, they braided the bedsheets together and climbed down to the ground.

Vickery said guards were aware of Williams's past and had taken precautions, including separating him from others and placing him in a cell without an exterior wall.

"We are taking a number of steps to make sure this doesn't happen again," Vickery said, noting that authorities will install steel bars closer together inside the concrete walls to prevent a hole from being punched through.

Last fall, Williams escaped from the back of a Fairfax County police cruiser by slipping his handcuffs from behind him to the front, rolling down the window, opening the door using the outside latch and then jumping out. He was picked up later the same day.

Williams also once tried to escape by feigning illness, but as he was about to be transported to a hospital, guards discovered that he was wearing a dress shirt under the prison garb. A Gucci shoe was later found in a bag.

CAPTION: Sheriff Carl R. Peed, above, said challenger Stanley G. Barry is "politicizing" the escape issue.