LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The state prison system has suspended a lieutenant and corrections officer from the Ionia Correctional Facility over Sunday’s escape by a convicted killer, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan told 24 Hour News 8 Friday.
Prison officials also said they are investigating whether Michael Elliot got help — even inside help — in his escape.
“That’s what we’re asking: Whether this was just a series of events that he got very lucky or whether this was more of a planned event, whether there was participants that assisted him,” Marlan said. “For us corrections people, it just seems too coincidental.”
Too coincidental, he said, that Elliot wasn’t noticed even as surveillance cameras picked him up as he left his housing area at 6 p.m. Sunday, walked across snow, then spent an hour pulling apart two security fences with his bare hands.
“Not only can you see him, but then you see a trail in the snow, someone was walking through the snow,” Marlan said.
“It’s not just the cameras,” Marlan said. “It was the cameras, it was the motion detectors on the fence, it was the perimeter vehicle that was patrolling that night. So prisoner Elliot got through several levels of security systems and got out.”
A later check of the motion detectors showed they were working, Marlan said. A review of surveillance also showed the perimeter patrol vehicle was within 20 feet of him at one point.
When asked whether they were looking into the possibility of inside help, Marlan said: “We’re looking at that for sure,” though he said they’ve turned up no evidence of it so far.
Also, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette announced Friday the Department of Attorney General will lead an investigation into the escape.
Elliot, 40, was in prison for five life sentences for killing four people and then setting the house on fire in 1993 near Midland.
The two suspended employees are not accused of helping in his escape. Instead, they are accused of dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer, and violating security precautions. The lieutenant also is accused of failing to report.
“Enough information came to light that we felt it necessary to suspend them and they’ve been charged with these work-rule violations,” Marlan said.
A source told 24 Hour News 8 the two worked in the prison’s control center, where officers are supposed to closely monitor surveillance cameras.
The state Department of Corrections was not releasing their names, but said they were suspended indefinitely — the first seven days without pay.
Prison officials on Friday also said they believe the escape was well-planned and not just “quick-thinking,” as Elliot has said.
Elliot was a Level II, medium-security prisoner who had been held at the Ionia prison for five years, Marlan said.
“I don’t think this escape plan he developed Sunday afternoon,” Marlan said.
“He’s had the opportunity to study the security systems there, the security measures, our procedures, staff movements, hear conversations,” Marlan said.
Elliot was wearing a white uniform normally worn by prisoners who work in the kitchen, even though he wasn’t assigned there. Prison officials believe he stole it from another prisoner, Marlan said.
“He picked Super Bowl Sunday during the game as his time to attempt the escape, so I think he had been working on this plan for a while,” Marlan said.
What is not clear, he said, is whether prison staff was distracted by the Super Bowl.
Many prisoners have TVs in their rooms, or they can watch in the day rooms. However, TVs are not allowed in the control center, Marlan said.
“Watching a football game, watching anything other than what you’re supposed to be watching, for work, would not be authorized,” he said.
He said prison officials are trying to determine if a TV was brought into the control center, although there’s no evidence of that.
Also, Elliot was not armed with a box cutter, as originally believed. Instead, it was a weapon he fashioned out of blades from plastic disposable razors provided by the prison, Marlan said.
Authorities said Elliot carjacked a woman in Ionia and forced her to drive away. The woman and Elliot stopped at a gas station in Middlebury, Ind. where the woman hid in a bathroom and called 911 late Sunday night. Elliot stole her vehicle, and three other vehicles, before finally being arrested in LaPorte, Ind. early Monday evening.
He is currently in the LaPorte County Jail awaiting extradition, which he is fighting.
Elliot is expected to face criminal charges in both Indiana and Michigan related to the escape.
“Ensuring public safety is paramount,” Snyder said in a Friday morning news release. “Thankfully no one was physically injured in this dangerous prisoner’s escape and apprehension, but we must have an exhaustive investigation into the circumstances that led to this incident and take whatever appropriate action may be necessary to prevent future occurrences. That’s why I asked the Attorney General to look into this matter. I appreciate his willingness to take this critical role on. While I have full confidence in Michigan Department of Corrections Director Dan Heyns’ internal affairs investigation underway, this additional step will supplement and be independent from that to ensure we have the most thorough and comprehensive information possible.”
“We will conduct an aggressive investigation, without fear or favor,” added Schuette. “Prisons are built to keep dangerous criminals locked away from society, but in this case a violent murderer escaped. This will be an exhaustive investigation. We’ll follow the facts to find out what happened and why. We will issue a full and complete report.”
Friday night, 24 Hour News 8 tracked down one of the suspended employees — the shift lieutenant. She’s not talking.
Also silent is the correction officers’ union.
Michigan Correction Organization President Tom Tyluftki was quick to blame staffing cuts under the Snyder Administration for Elliots’s prison break Sunday.
But Friday, he wasn’t ready to comment on the investigation.