Despite agreeing that serious failures by her own jail managers enabled last year’s jailbreak, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens did not fire or demote anyone over it, according to a top Sheriff's Department official.
Three inmates – who were awaiting trial on violent charges of kidnapping and torture, attempted murder, and murder – escaped through a plumbing tunnel last January and spent over a week on the run before they were captured. During that time, they held a taxi driver captive at gunpoint for days and debated whether to kill him.
In her formal response to a scathing grand report about the escape, Hutchens agreed her managers failed to ensure deputies were regularly inspecting plumbing tunnels, failed to ensure there were regular searches of contractors and visitors at the jail, and failed to ensure tools brought into the jail by construction crews weren’t left behind.
Had it not been for these failures, the escape probably wouldn’t have happened, Hutchens wrote in her June 16 response to the grand jury.
But questions were raised during a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday about whether she properly held her staff accountable.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer publicly questioned the man now in charge of the jails, Commander Jon Briggs.
Briggs agreed that if the jail staff had been inspecting the plumbing tunnels like they were supposed to – once every 12-hour shift – the escape probably wouldn’t have happened.
Noting that Hutchens said in her report management failures aided the escape, Spitzer asked how many people were disciplined over the jailbreak. Briggs estimated there were four or five disciplinary actions.
“Have there been any terminations?” Spitzer asked.
“No demotions, no terminations,” Briggs replied.
“Three inmates escape – very dangerous” people, Spitzer said. “One of ‘em cut off the private parts of a person [and] left him to die in the desert. These were hugely dangerous people.”
“Agreed,” Briggs said.
“And yet, no one’s been – no one got fired because they didn’t do their job,” Spitzer said.
“So no one’s accountable at any level?” Spitzer asked. “It was already a policy to inspect the plumbing tunnels.”
Spitzer also said Hutchens, during her private briefings of county supervisors about the escape in the months afterward, misled them into believing the issues were only about the building and not about mismanagement. The supervisors have oversight of budgetary issues and legal liability at the Sheriff’s Department.
“Based on what you told me, it (the escape) didn’t happen overnight. It obviously involved an instrument of some sort,” Spitzer told Briggs.
“And it was done through the – getting through the grate. Which means that, if somebody had come in with their flashlight, like they were supposed to and looked up in the plumbing tunnels every 12 hours, we wouldn’t have had an escape. It would have been discovered, right?”
“It should have been. That’s correct,” Briggs replied.
“When was this board told – ever – that it was human error and it was not a function of the default of the building? When were we told that?” Spitzer asked.
“I’m not sure if they were [told],” Briggs replied, referring to the supervisors.
Through her spokesman, Hutchens declined to comment on Spitzer’s claim she withheld the role of management problems from the supervisors or that no one was fired or demoted.
None of the other supervisors, all of whom attended the briefings, responded to Spitzer or challenged his claim that they weren't told by Hutchens about management failures.
Spitzer said Hutchens described the jail as a building issue in her briefings to the supervisors, and only changed her position months later after the grand jury report publicly cited mismanagement.
“We should have known, from day one, or as soon as it was available to be known, that there was a failure of leadership and management…in the Sheriff’s Department, and that supervisors…were not ensuring that the line deputies were [inspecting] those plumbing tunnels,” Spitzer said.
Additionally, Spitzer said, the very same vulnerability exploited in last year’s jailbreak – plumbing tunnels – was used in a 1981 escape attempt by a convicted murderer that was covered in the news media. He said that shows the department knew about that vulnerability for the three decades leading up to the escape.
None of the other supervisors spoke about the escape at all in response to Spitzer’s comments, either to support Hutchens or question the lack of terminations or demotions over the escape.
Spitzer officially announced a run for District Attorney earlier this week. Hutchens has endorsed Spitzer’s opponent, incumbent DA Tony Rackaucaks.
In the aftermath of the jailbreak, sheriff’s officials beefed up security and the jail is now secure, according to Hutchens.
In response to the escape, the department spent about $500,000 on “hardening” the jail building and $4.5 million per year in staffing increases, sheriff’s executive Brian Wayt told supervisors Tuesday.
Part of that staffing increase was achieved through overtime among existing jail staff, while some comes from temporary transfers of staff from other areas of the Sheriff’s Department, according to Hutchens’ spokesman, Lt. Lane Lagaret.
As an example, he said, the department can temporarily re-designate sheriff’s special officers, who provide security at courts and county buildings, as deputies at the jails.
The commanders who were overseeing the Men’s Central Jail during the escape are either no longer with the department, or no longer overseeing jails, according to Lagaret.
Capt. Christopher Wilson was in charge of Central Men’s Jail at the time. He left the jail command soon after the escape and later retired.
According to a lawsuit filed by the sheriff’s deputies union after the escape, Wilson directed staff to disobey a policy requiring deputies to conduct physical body counts of inmates. The lack of proper counts was cited as a reason the escapees got as much as a 15-hour head start before they were discovered to be missing.
Commander Toni Bland, who oversaw the jail system during the escape, was promoted after the escape to assistant sheriff for field operations and investigative services. She served in that position for several months before retiring.
Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea also oversaw the jail system at the time of the escape. He still works as a commander at the Sheriff’s Department, and now oversees hiring, training, human resources, and internal investigations.
Through the sheriff’s spokesman, Voice of OC has sought comment from Kea since Friday, when the news agency first learned Hutchens agreed that management failures likely enabled the escape.
Kea was out of the office Friday and unavailable Wednesday because he’s on vacation, Lagaret said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.