From the outside, the forbidding concrete walls and narrow slit windows of the Pettis County Jail make it look like a fortress was planted smack dab in the middle of the historical downtown area for Sedalia, Mo.
But the building’s imposing-looking construction apparently wasn’t enough to keep Travis Lee Davis behind bars. Neither was placing him in handcuffs and throwing him in the back of a squad car, as police in Oklahoma found out on Wednesday when they tried to arrest the 30-year-old fugitive, who had vanished from the Missouri jail four days beforehand and sparked an extensive manhunt across the state. Somehow, Davis managed to slip out of their grasp, too, leaving the smashed-up wreckage of a stolen police car in his wake.
“We’re hunting the fella,” Capt. Dave Keller of the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office told KRCG on Tuesday. “Hunting him vigorously. We’ll get him. It’s just a matter of time.”
On Thursday morning, the search entered its fourth day. Officials first announced that Davis had gone missing early on Monday, warning the public that he was considered dangerous and that they should be on the lookout for a man with a prominent Eye of Providence tattoo on his neck. According to KRCG, he had been in jail since February, when he was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill his pregnant girlfriend and her 8-month-old baby during a standoff with police. Before his escape, he had been charged with kidnapping, domestic assault, child endangerment, resisting arrest and violating the terms of his parole, and was being held on $110,000 bond.
In a probable cause statement obtained by the station, Sgt. Tolbert “Tollie” Rowe wrote that after reviewing surveillance footage and talking to other inmates, deputies had determined that Davis had broken out of the jail at approximately 9:31 p.m. Saturday. He had climbed into the ceiling of the pod where he was being held, clambered across the rafters and then squeezed through an access hole in a concrete wall that led to a maintenance closet reserved for staff. From there, he had been able to find his way to the exit and slip out of the jail on foot, disappearing into the night. It wasn’t until the early-morning hours on Monday that those tasked with overseeing the jail learned that Davis hadn’t been present for head count the night before.
“I don’t think you ever plan for that to happen,” Pettis County Presiding Commissioner David Dick told KRCG. “That’s not why you build a jail. We need to figure out what happened and not let it happen again.”
Officials have said that they’re still trying to figure out exactly how Davis’s escape went undetected, and there have been conflicting reports about when and how he disappeared. Initially, Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond told KRCG and the Sedalia Democrat that Davis sneaked out of jail on Sunday and was reported missing that same night, and that he seemed to have kicked cinder blocks out from a wall and climbed through the hole to a maintenance room. Reached by The Washington Post, representatives from the sheriff’s office directed all questions to Bond, who was not available for comment late Wednesday night.
“We are working to be able to address the issues that allowed this to occur to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Bond told the Democrat on Monday. “Since it started, other inmates are familiar with what’s going on so we’re making sure others don’t replicate the same thing.”
Two days after he was reported missing, Davis turned up in a small town nearly six hours southwest of Sedalia — then disappeared again.
Just before 7 a.m. on Wednesday, authorities in Heavener, Okla., got a strange call from the Choctaw Travel Plaza, an all-night gas station on the outskirts of town where the slot machines are as much of a draw as the gas pumps. A woman there told them that she had been kidnapped by a man who had forced her to drive at gunpoint, then had fallen asleep when they stopped for gas. Correctional officers from a nearby prison got there before the police did, and she pointed them to Davis.
According to the Heavener Ledger, Davis tried to climb into the driver’s seat of the parked car, but the prison guards dragged him out before he could speed off. Once officers from the Heavener Police Department showed up, they slapped a set of handcuffs on him, placed him in the back of their patrol car and started questioning the woman who had reported the kidnapping. The next thing they knew, Davis was in the front seat of the police car, driving away.
“He somehow got the cuffs to the front of him and somehow managed to get through the window in the partition while my guys were interviewing the victim,” Heavener Police Chief Ty Armstrong told the Democrat. “He went through the window, stole the car and went approximately two miles and crashed then fled on foot.”
Police sped after him, only to find the empty police car abandoned amid bare trees and thick, bristly underbrush. No weapons appeared to be missing from the car, KHBS reported.
Once again, it was a mystery how Davis had managed to pull off an escape that should have been impossible. The partition window that he had climbed through to get to the front seat had been completely closed, and theoretically could only be opened from the officers’ side, authorities told KHBS. And although the car’s engine had been running while he sat in the back, the officers had removed the keys from the ignition and were holding onto them when Davis drove away. Police haven’t yet figured out how he could have made it nearly two miles down the road without having the key fob, the station reported.
Nearby schools went into lockdown as officers from the Heavener Police Department, LeFlore County Sheriff’s Office and Oklahoma Highway Patrol combed the area for the missing man and warned residents to lock their doors, be watchful for strangers and avoid picking up any hitchhikers. Initially, police dogs seemed to be having some success tracking the fugitive’s scent, Armstrong told the Democrat, but then a heavy downpour brought things to a halt.
By the end of the day on Wednesday, Davis still hadn’t been found. One possibility, officials posited, was that he had hopped on a freight train headed out of town. The tracks of the Kansas City Southern railroad run alongside the old blacktop road where he had wrecked the police car, and two trains would have been approaching at right about that time, Armstrong said.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday evening, the saga grew even more complicated. Officials now believe that the woman who called to report the kidnapping, Christole Hurst, had been dating Davis and had helped him to escape from jail, KHBS reported. LeFlore County Sheriff Rob Seale told the station that the two had frequently talked on the phone while Davis was locked up in Missouri, and that surveillance video from an Oklahoma casino showed them gambling together at 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Just a few hours later, after losing money at the casino, she had called the police.
Then Hurst, too, had disappeared. “She’s supposed to be returning to Missouri,” Seale said, “and I’m going to file charges on her for making a false report.”
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