Captured inmates make court appearance

Otis Blunt and Jose Espinosa caught after last month's daring escape
January 18, 2008 3:31:00 PM PST
Bail is set at $4 million each for two inmates who staged a daring escape from the Union County Jail last month. Jose Espinosa and Otis Blunt made their first court appearance today since their captures last week.

Espinosa was found in an apartment not far from the jail in Elizabeth. Authorities tracked Blunt to Mexico City.

Espinosa's lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Blunt said he had not been allowed to see an attorney. Both are being held at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to avoid possible reprisals in the jail.

They had left behind a sarcastic note thanking a guard for helping their escape. The guard later killed himself.

Authorities say no guard knowingly aided the escapees.

After the hearing the two men were returned to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. They have been held there to avoid possible reprisals in the jail.

The inmates had remained at large nearly four weeks before Espinosa, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was found in a basement apartment a mile from the jail on Jan. 8. Blunt was captured the next day in a cheap Mexico City hotel.

Their breakout, the first since the jail opened in 1986, prompted a review of security procedures that has so far resulted in more patrols and more cameras. The two men had been in single cells in what was considered the most secure section of the jail.

Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow is overseeing an investigation into how the men escaped. Although the inmates left a sarcastic note thanking a guard, Romankow has said no guard knowingly aided the escapees.

The guard named in the note, Rudolph Zurick, 40, committed suicide at his South Amboy home Jan. 2, the day he was to speak to investigators.

When they disappeared Dec. 14, Blunt, 32, was awaiting trial for robbery and weapons offenses, while Espinosa, 20, was awaiting sentencing to a possible 17-year term after pleading guilty to manslaughter in a 2005 drive-by shooting.

To engineer the escape, Romankow has said Blunt swiped a 10-pound steel valve wheel from a standpipe in an area that should have been locked, and that the inmates used it to bash the cinderblocks between their cells and on an exterior wall. They flushed the debris down the toilet.

The pair used photos of bikini-clad women to hide the holes, a trick used by the main character in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption."

Authorities believe the men escaped the night of Dec. 14 by squeezing through the openings onto a third-floor rooftop, then leaping over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

The men had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping, and guards did not notice until about 20 hours later, about 5 p.m. on Dec. 15.