Investigators in Florida say two convicted murderers are on the run after authorities mistakenly let them out of prison. They believe forged documents filed in the Orange County Court are to blame. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
Using forged documents to scam your way out of jail may seem the ultimate Hail Mary pass, but it sometimes works, as demonstrated by this week’s escape by two convicted murderers in Florida and a number of similar cases over the past decade.
Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker were freed recently from the Franklin Correctional Institute in Carabelle, Fla., after documents bearing forged signatures from state judges, assistant state attorneys and a judicial assistant were filed in the Orange County Clerk of Courts office, then sent to the prison, state and local officials told NBC News.
In making their getaway – both men remained at large as of early Friday – they joined a surprisingly long list of prisoners who have managed to fake their way out of the hoosegow using similar ruses, including:
- A man in Pennsylvania who had scammed the IRS out of more than $1 million in tax refunds, then used forged court documents to gain his release from state prison in 2012.
- Three inmates in Wisconsin who were charged with using forged papers to slash their time in prison in 2012. One went free, one got reduced supervision at the end of his sentence and the last came close to freedom before the scheme was discovered.
- A man suspected of escaping twice from Florida prisons in two years using forged documents.
- An inmate who arranged for someone to fax a Kentucky psychiatric center with a fake state Supreme Court order demanding his release.
In the latest case, Jenkins was released on Sept. 27, and Walker was freed on Oct. 8. Both were serving time on murder convictions. The forged documents in Jenkins’ case included a time stamp from the Orange County Clerk of Courts office and the forged signatures of an assistant state attorney in Orlando, a Circuit Court judge and his judicial assistant, according to county officials. The forgeries of the Walker documents are similar.
Florida Department of Corrections
Determining how the forged documents got into the court system will be a key element in figuring out what happened, said Leesa Bainbridge, spokeswoman for the Clerk of Courts office.
“In this case, we’re not sure how the documents entered our paper stream,” Bainbridge said.
“Typically the judge issues the order and we pick it up from the judge’s chambers,” she said. “We receive the orders and we record them in the court file, then forward them to the appropriate agency, in this case the Department of Corrections.”
But documents that the office deals with also can arrive via mail, or be dropped off directly in the clerk’s office or in a drop box, she said.
“We’re obviously going to take a step back and see how we can avoid these in the future,” Bainbridge said.
State Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said in a statement that his department “is conducting a vigorous and thorough review of releases that were based on modified court orders received from Orange County to ensure that there are no other inmates who have been released based on falsified documents."
Related story: Florida escapee had tried to forge release papers before
In previous cases reviewed by NBC News, forged documents have arrived at prisons and jails via mail, fax or accomplice.
Florida Department of Corrections
In the 2012 Pennsylvania case, the forged documents used to free Kevin William Small appeared to come to the prison through the mail, federal officials said. Small was convicted of filing for more than $1 million in false federal tax returns – while he was in state prison on another conviction – and federal authorities were waiting for him to finish his state sentence to move him to a federal prison.
U.S. Marshal Martin Pane of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said Small was released after completing his state term in January 2012, but the Marshals Service didn’t find out until March, even though the state was supposed to notify the agency prior to his release.
In any case, Pane said, “Court orders that are issued in the federal government system dismissing charges are not mailed, they are served.”
The FBI later determined that the judge’s signature on an order vacating Small’s federal conviction had been forged.
Marshals and the FBI quickly tracked Small down, and he pleaded guilty to new charges in the scheme. U.S. marshals said that Small had tried a similar ruse unsuccessfully in 1999.
Small wasn't the first inmate to make multiple attempts at getting out of jail using forged documents. One con in Florida being held on stolen check charges left the Pinellas County Jail in 2009 after a document ordering his release, apparently signed by the chief judge, was filed in the county clerk’s office, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The document was faxed from the clerk’s office to the jail and the man was freed – although the forgery was soon discovered and he was recaptured.
Then authorities found the man had been freed early from prison in 2007 after a burglary conviction and they discovered that a suspicious document had reduced his sentence.
The man was eventually convicted in the 2009 escape – in which he spent just 16 hours free.
Some attempts don’t get even that far.
One case was almost comical: In 2004, a man charged with forgery and burglary in Indiana was accused of trying to get out jail before trial by forging a judge’s signature on a court order reducing his bail to $500 cash. But an accomplice on the outside, tasked with sending the document to the man’s lawyer, accidentally faxed it to the jail instead. Jail staff members were skeptical, and the inmate’s bond wound up being raised to $250,000.
In 2011, the Palm Beach County clerk’s office uncovered a scheme to gain the release of a suspect in a burglary case, in which a judge’s signature was forged on an order dismissing charges against the defendant. But a keen-eyed deputy clerk noticed that the document had arrived in an envelope with a stamp but no postmark and found other irregularities, said Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock.
“She knows the judge’s signature, and that is not the judge’s signature,” Bock said Thursday. “As a result, she took it to her supervisor” and the document was determined to be forged.
In response to that case, the clerk’s office made a couple of key changes in the way such documents are handled, said Louis Tomeo, director of criminal courts in the office.
“Number one, we reiterated to our clerks to never take a judge’s order from mail,” Tomeo said. “Number two, we made sure that all of our clerks are familiar with all of our judges’ signatures that they work with.”
Now, Bock said, there are new worries as Florida’s courts undergo a quantum leap to electronic documents.
“This is the biggest change to the court system since the Guttenberg press,” she said, bringing concerns about the security and integrity of court documents.
“The chain of custody, how they come in, the unique identifier of the judge ... all of these things will be factored in,” she said. “We’re going to be just as cautious.”
More from NBC News Investigations:
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