Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, faced with a second major prison escape within six months and continuing problems in the state's troubled corrections system, today announced the resignation of Corrections Director Robert M. Landon.
"The decision was the right one for him and the department," Robb said in a hastily called news conference in the wake of the Thanksgiving Day escape of five inmates from the Nottoway Correctional Center. The escapees cut through two chain-link fences only steps from a guard's tower at the medium-security center 45 miles southwest of here.
The last of the five fugitives, who had spent much of Thursday night and yesterday morning in sub-freezing cold, was recaptured about one half mile from the prison shortly before 9 p.m. last night. Authorities said they found Anthony Wayne Fox, 29, of Falls Church, after a search in which a helicopter and tracking dogs were used.
Robb, who returned Wednesday from an overseas trade mission, said Landon's resignation had been accepted earlier this month and was to have been announced Monday.
The breakout from Nottoway raised new questions about the state's troubled system, including why a violent prisoner was assigned to the medium-security facility and whether the design of the prison prevented guards from properly observing the prisoners.
Fairfax authorities said they were surprised and angered that Fox, serving life plus 235 years for rape, sodomy and abduction in a Fairfax case, was sent to the medium-security prison given his violent history and the nature of his crimes.
"It's absolutely astounding," Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan said today. "I can't believe they put him in a medium-security facility."
The escapees were seen too late by a guard who yelled for them to stop but did not fire her weapon, according to prison officials attempting to reconstruct events at the $25 million facility that has been open only four months.
One inmate was arrested just after midnight when he asked to enter a Burkeville home and was held at gunpoint for police by the home's occupants.
Three other inmates were captured without incident after a state police helicopter equipped with search lights spotted them on a railroad track about a mile from the prison, according to authorities.
"I think they were chilled enough to go with anybody to get warm," said Robert L. Berryman, deputy director of the state police bureau of investigation.
Landon's letter of resignation was dated Nov. 16, shortly after a state Board of Corrections investigation sharply criticized the department's overall operations and the escape last May of six death-row inmates from Mecklenburg prison.
Robb named Allyn R. Sielaff, a deputy secretary of transportation and public safety in the state, as the new corrections director. Sielaff is a widely respected authority on prisons who has headed prison systems in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Sielaff becomes the third corrections director named by Robb. Raymond Procunier, now head of prisons in Texas, left in 1983 after budget and other disputes with Robb's administration.
Robb said Landon, a 10-year veteran of the department, decided to resign on his own, but the governor declined to say whether he had suggested the move.
"The best way to respond," Robb said, "is [that] I told him what had happened in August [an inmate hostage incident at Mecklenburg] could not happen again -- or anything like it."
Robb, questioned at an unrelated public ceremony today, told a WRVA radio reporter here that "it's a little early to determine exactly how this [Nottoway] incident happened."
Robb said there "are matters of both personnel and prison design that are being looked into at this time. There are no blind spots as such [from the towers]. If the personnel on duty were observing, they could have seen what was taking place." Later, he said that, based on what he was told in briefings, "It's very clear that the persons in the two towers didn't do their duty."
Robb said that state police and corrections officials will investigate the Nottoway escape.
Despite Robb's comments, Berryman, the police spokesman, said the five escaped "from an area that was difficult at best to observe from the two watch towers that had some view of the location."
Berryman said the escape so close to the base of one tower that "it was difficult to see" and that "because of the design of the facility, a building partly blocked the view" from the other tower.
It was also unclear today why the guard who first noticed the escapees failed to fire any weapon or how the inmates avoided attention by prison guards responsible for them during a recreation period that had just ended when the escape occurred.
And Nottoway Sheriff Jesse E. Powell said today that he was never officially told of the escape, learning of it about 30 minutes after it happened when a deputy relayed a message from a local jailer who heard "commotion" on the radio.
Asked if there was an agreement by prison authorities to notify local law enforcement officers, Powell said "after yesterday there will be."
The prison warden, Dave Garraghty, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the escape that the facility is short about 17 guards and that a catwalk he requested between the two towers had been denied by corrections officials. He said a sensor device and a television monitor for the security fences had not yet been installed.
The Thursday escapees were Fox; Richard T. Vescuso, 27, convicted of robbery; Robert Stockman, 23, convicted of breaking and entering; Jimmy Jones, 38, convicted of armed robbery; and Jimmy Lee Hollingsworth, 23, convicted of burglary.