2nd NJ jail escapee captured in Mexico City

First suspect caught Tuesday
January 8, 2008 9:00:00 PM PST
Authorities in Mexico City on Wednesday captured the second of two inmates who made a daring escape nearly four weeks ago from a northern New Jersey jail, the U.S. marshal for New Jersey said.The apprehension of Otis Blunt came less than a day after federal and local authorities captured his cohort, Jose Espinosa, in a basement apartment a mile from the jail in Elizabeth.

Blunt was arrested by Mexican Federal Police about 4:30 p.m. EDT, said Marshal James T. Plousis.

He said Blunt was expected back in New Jersey late Wednesday or early Thursday. Since Blunt has been declared an undesirable in Mexico, there were no formal extradition proceedings, Plousis said.

Blunt was found by marshals and Mexican authorities at a "$10-a-night hotel," Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said. Plousis said he was arrested without incident and had no weapon.

"We will interview him extensively to find out how long he's been there and how he got there," Plousis said.

Plousis said the Rev. Al Sharpton's visit this week to Mexico City indirectly helped in the arrest. Sharpton said he had been contacted by acquaintances of Blunt to try to arrange his surrender.

"There's no question Mr. Sharpton raised public involvement," Plousis said, adding that authorities had received several tips.

In a statement, Sharpton said, "I wish I could have been on hand to assure Mr. Blunt's safety but clearly his calling me to where he was helped lead to the conclusion that it did, and I hope that justice for all parties will be served."

Blunt was awaiting trial for robbery and weapons offenses.

His capture came on the day that authorities revealed that it took guards 20 hours to notice that the two inmates had escaped from the most fortified section of Union County Jail.

The ongoing investigation has found no evidence that guards knowingly assisted the prisoners, Romankow said. "At most we're looking at negligence by corrections officers," Romankow said.

The escape was discovered by Corrections Officer Rudolph Zurick, who found a sarcastic note left by the prisoners thanking him for his "help." Although authorities repeatedly said they had no evidence that Zurick gave any aid, the guard committed suicide at his South Amboy home Jan. 2, the day he was to speak to investigators.

When asked by reporters after his capture if he felt bad about Zurick's suicide, Espinosa responded: "It wasn't my fault."

Authorities have said the pair used photos of bikini-clad women to hide holes they dug through cinderblock walls in a jailbreak that echoed the plot of "The Shawshank Redemption." In the movie, the main character uses posters of women to conceal his escape tunnel and eventually flees to Mexico.

Guards first raised an alarm for Espinosa, 20, and Blunt, 32, about 5 p.m. on Dec. 15. The men had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping. However, authorities now believe the men had escaped about 9 p.m. on Dec. 14 by squeezing through the openings onto a third-floor rooftop, and then leaping over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

In outlining miscues at the jail, Romankow said that Blunt swiped a steel valve wheel from a standpipe in an area that should have been locked, and that the inmates made a lot of noise for about two weeks while using the approximately 10-pound implement to bash the cinderblocks between their cells and on an exterior wall.

A re-enactment created "extremely loud" noise, but it remained unclear if other noise - perhaps from passing trains - obscured the sounds, he said.

A thick wire that authorities believe was used to scrape mortar around the blocks appears to have been something found by the inmates inside the wall.

Debris from the smashed cinderblocks was flushed in the toilet, Romankow said.

Once outside, the men went in separate directions.

Espinosa, who sprained his ankle, walked north, hailed a cab at the nearby train station, and stayed in a motel before holing up in the apartment, Romankow said.

Authorities got a tip about Espinosa's whereabouts and he surrendered without incident.

"We believe that other people were assisting him," Romankow said.

Also arrested in the apartment was a 19-year-old woman, Odalys Cortez, whom authorities said formerly lived in Elizabeth but had moved to Pennsylvania while Espinosa was jailed. Cortez was charged with resisting arrest; it was unclear if she would face other charges.

Espinosa now faces a charge of escape that could add three years to a possible 17-year term he faces after pleading guilty to manslaughter in a 2005 drive-by shooting.

Acting jail director Gary Hilton, who was brought on a week after the escape, said Espinosa was to be taken to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to avoid any reprisal at the Union County Jail.

Meanwhile, new security measures have been instituted since the breakout, the first since the jail opened in 1986, and more will be installed, Hilton said. Head counts, for instance, are now taken with inmates standing, he said.