Former guard: Elliot’s escape a ‘mystery’

(Feb. 2, 2014)

KENTWOOD, Mich.(WOOD) — A former Ionia Correctional Facility guard told 24 Hour News 8 that he doesn’t understand how Michael Elliot able to bypass so many prison safeguards and successfully escape from the facility Sunday night.

Michael Elliot. (Courtesy LaPorte County Sheriff's Office - Feb. 3, 2014)
Michael Elliot. (Courtesy LaPorte County Sheriff’s Office – Feb. 3, 2014)

Elliot, a 40-year-old sentenced to five life terms in prison for four 1993 murders, escaped Sunday evening. He was captured Monday evening in LaPorte County, Ind.

Aaron Cobb was a corrections officer for 13 years, ending his career in the Ionia maximum security prison. While working for the DOC he was a member of the Emergency Response Team and also trained officers in the DOC’s boot camp. He left in 2008 and he and his wife started a personal training company called iTrain.

Back when Cobb was an assistant shift supervisor at the maximum security facility, he said there were more guards and the ‘gun towers’ were staffed. He said he thinks more staff would have helped prevent Elliot’s escape.

The Ionia Correctional Facility. (Feb. 3, 2014)
The Ionia Correctional Facility. (Feb. 3, 2014)

Cobb sat down with 24 Hour News 8 Monday afternoon and explained how difficult it would have been for Elliot to escape on a  satellite image of the prison.

“There’s a fence here and a fence here, and there’s a guard shack here,” Cobb pointed out. “Since he wasn’t a kitchen worker, how he was able to move from point A to point B is the mystery.”

Cobb saw several mysteries in the successful escape.

The one that he called the “million dollar question” is how Elliot got his hands on a box cutter, which he used to carjack a woman in Ionia who he then forced to drive him to Indiana.

“We went to great lengths to make sure that [prisoners] didn’t have any weapons or anything that these guys could make into weapons,” said Cobb. “But all it would take is if he worked in the warehouse, or another area and somebody set a box cutter down, forgot about it and he took it. Who knows.”

Cobb said every tool is closely monitored in prison.  “Nothing is supposed to happen without  a reason,” said Cobb.  “Everything is supposed to be accounted for at all times.”

Cobb said kitchen staff use knives that are tethered to tables. Even a tools like rakes are monitored, but something like a rake is less controlled than something that can be used more obviously as a weapon.

“[Prisoners] shouldn’t have any access to any type of weapon like that, so that’s going to be one of the things that the investigation hopefully will turn up is how he got it.”

When asked, Cobb admitted someone did likely drop the ball to let Elliot get his hands on that box cutter.

“I would have to assume so,” said Cobb. “These things don’t just float around.”

He did tell 24 Hour News 8 that the box cutter would not have been any help cutting through any of the gates Elliot bypassed to escape.

“I doubt very seriously that anybody opened the gates for him,” said Cobb. “Kind of the word that I got was he was somehow able to make his way through both of those fences, which in and of itself was a problem, because he was able to get through not one fence but two fences.”

Cobb said the exterior gate is supposed to have an alarm that goes off when anyone touches it.

“The security system is supposed to alert the control center staff anytime that fence moves. Sometimes if the wind blows too hard, it will set it off, and that will trigger a response to have staff respond and visually check the area,” said Cobb.

“Sometimes, in my experience, what will happen is prisoners will test officers’ response,” Cobb continued.

He said he has seen inmates throw batteries at the fence and see how long it takes for officers to respond. If this happens frequently in a particular zone, Cobb said it is easy to become more complacent.

“I can’t imagine that the alarm system itself would have been down for any length of time, because they’re usually pretty good about addressing those type of issues,” Cobb said.

Cobb said he doesn’t know how or why, but the alarm must not have gone off Sunday night.

“It couldn’t have happened,” said Cobb. “If there was a fence alarm, staff members would have responded, and had they responded, they would have seen this guy on or near the fence, and would have been able to prevent him from escaping. So somehow the system didn’t alert them that something was going on.”

Another question Cobb had was how Elliot could make it through that sally port area, which has been described as a secure place where prisoners are brought inside the facility.

Cobb again pointed out all the obstacles Elliot would have had to bypass:

“He was able to make it down the hill, past the officer who should have been in this yard shack here, make it through this area here over to the sally port.”

Cobb said there is a very particular reason the sally port is usually very closely guarded.

“Sally port is usually one of the most highly guarded parts of the prison, because for all intents and purposes, it’s a hole in the fence,” Cobb said.

Cobb also said he thinks that this escape was very methodically planned out.

“The guy had to have put some time into it,” said Cobb. “This is not something that he just thought up on a whim. A lot of time these guys will just watch everything. And there’s a saying: ‘We have eight hours to figure the prisoners out, they have 24 hours to figure us out.'”

Another part of that planning was the time in which Elliot escaped.

Cobb said that during an event like the Super Bowl, “the prisoners want to watch it, too. They like sports still and of course staff do. So your movement slows down as opposed to any other Sunday afternoon where prisoners would have probably been on the yard or doing other things. What a perfect opportunity knowing that everybody is kind of enthralled in the game to kind of slip out and hope that nobody watching. And it sounds like that’s probably what happened.”

The Michigan Department of Corrections director and Gov. Rick Snyder have both demanded a ‘thorough” investigation into how Elliot got away.

Cobb said that there are guards who are supposed to be out on the yard at all times, and many times they will listen to the game on the radio. But, if someone wasn’t at their post, that’s obviously a problem, that will likely come out during the investigation.

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