It was not the first time that a cell door at the 1960s-era facility released an inmate because of a malfunction: Last June, a man serving a sentence for a probation violation noticed that his door had failed to lock, according to WRDW, and he enjoyed a few hours of freedom before police caught him in an alley.
The county decided to build a new jail after last year’s incident, the Times and Democrat newspaper reported, but construction had barely started before the dilapidated jail’s electrical systems frizzed out again, on Saturday night, with disastrous results.
It began with an electrical short in a control panel in a small pod of four cells, according to county administrator Harold Young, who spoke to reporters afterward. Sensing the malfunction, a safety mechanism opened all four of the cell doors.
“It’s designed to,” Young told Live 5 News. “If you have a fire or electrical something, you don’t want people to perish by not being able to get out of those cells.”
But the freak occurrence, he said, created an opportunity for the four men being held.
The youngest of the pod’s inmates, according to the county sheriff, was 20-year-old Green — who the Times and Democrat wrote was accused of shooting and killing an Orangeburg man who caught him attempting to steal his car.
With him was Johnson, 27, who was charged last year with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and armed robbery after three people were shot along Old Number Six Highway, the Times and Democrat reported.
Christopher Shannon Boltin, 27, had been awaiting trial on charges of carjacking and grand larceny but was considered no less dangerous, according to the sheriff’s office.
The fourth inmate in the pod was not named. Authorities said he participated in only the first stage of the escape: attacking and beating the unit’s single guard.
“The four individuals took that opportunity to jump that officer,” Young told Live 5 News. “They got his Mace and Maced him in the face.”
Once in control of their pod, the men still had to get out of the jail complex. Several locked doors and a high barbed-wire fence separated them from freedom: the thick cluster of trees, railroad tracks and the town beyond.
But the second stage of the escape was relatively simple, as Young explained it. One of the inmates simply walked up to the malfunctioning control panel and mashed buttons until more doors opened.
That left the fence. Having cleared a way to the perimeter without alerting other guards, Young said, the inmates doubled back to their cells. “They had access to their bedding and stuff,” he told WLTX. “So they snatched sheets and stuff out of their pod to throw across the wire to help get across.”
The new jail — which Young said would have prevented everything he had just described — was being built in an adjacent field. “With all of the construction and equipment, they ducked through one area and hit the wood line,” the administrator told WLTX.
“Probably got to the railroad tracks and probably just ran from there.”
“You’ve got to remember,” he said, “they weren’t shackled or anything. … Running-wise, they weren’t really restricted.”
Only Green, Johnson and Boltin made it over the fence, Young said. Their absence was discovered after the beaten-up jailer managed to resecure the cell unit, and guards conducted a head count of all 250-some prisoners in the facility.
“The kid that got caught in Lexington, I heard he hurt his leg in the jump,” Young told WTLX. “That’s probably why he got caught quicker than the other two.”
He meant Boltin, the accused carjacker, who was captured Sunday near the city of Columbia — about an hour’s drive north of Orangeburg. He is now back in jail, along with his father, who is accused of helping him while he was on the lam, according to The State newspaper.
On Monday, several residents told reporters they were scared to go outside.
“Orangeburg, you don’t know what’s going on in the city,” one told WLTX. “You never know.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Orangeburg County Sheriff Leroy Ravenell said that Johnson was apprehended by the U.S. Marshals, the Associated Press reported.
“These guys haven’t learned that it doesn’t matter how far you run, we’re right behind you,” Ravenell said, according to the Times and Democrat.
While a manhunt for Green spreads out from the town, the County Council has ordered Young lead an investigation into what went wrong — and how to prevent more rogue door incidents before the new jail is completed in 2020.
Among the options, the administrator told the WACH station, was installing more fuses.