IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — A Michigan Department of Corrections report concludes planning and prison staff errors allowed convicted murderer Michael Elliot to escape from the Ionia Correctional Facility.
Elliot, 40, who is serving five life sentences for four 1993 murders and an arson, escaped from the state prison outside of Ionia on the evening of Feb. 2. He was arrested about 24 hours later near LaPorte, Ind.
MDOC spokesman Russ Marlan said it is possible people will lose their jobs over the escape.
Thursday, MDOC released an eight-page report detailing how Elliot managed to escape from the prison and its action plan to prevent similar incidents. It shows there were security technology failures and human errors that allowed Elliot to get away.
Inside woodtv.com: Read the full report from MDOC (pdf)
Elliot planned the escape on his own for about four months after deciding snow could be used as cover, the report says he told investigators during a Feb. 8 interview at the LaPorte County, Ind. jail.
He said he chose Feb. 2 because he thought guards could have been distracted by watching the Super Bowl — but though there were errors on their part, the report says, there is no evidence they were distracted by the game.
Elliot was accounted for in his housing unit at a 1:25 p.m. check, the report says. Investigators found required afternoon informal checks were not performed.
Elliot was released for dinner at 4:09 p.m., but told investigators he did not go to dinner. Instead, he stayed in his unit and changed his clothes, putting on white clothing he fashioned out of thermal underwear under his prison blues. He said he waited until dinnertime because he knew other inmates would be moving around.
He waited for a guard watching the yard — who he described as “very active” — to turn his back, and then he made his move, taking off his uniform so he was only in the white clothes.
Elliot began his escape around 5:55 p.m., surveillance video shows. He first crawled on his belly through the snow across the Level II prison yard and then under a gap in the fence between the yard and the Michigan State Industries Factory building. He got stuck briefly, but managed to free himself.
Elliot said he then had to lay still for a while as prison traffic slowed, afraid a guard would see him. Once traffic picked back up, he crawled on his belly to the MSI building, managing to stay below the 3-foot microwave sensors. On the back side of the MSI building, he stood up and ran to the other side of the building, he said, because he knew there were no cameras there.
He then crawled toward the internal gate of the sally port, the part of the prison where new inmates are brought into the facility. The sally port was not staffed at the time — since 1987, it has been regularly staffed only between7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Elliot told investigators that another inmate pointed out to him about two years ago that the sally port was a security weak spot that Elliot thought he could exploit.
Lying on his stomach, he pulled apart the wire of the inside sally port fence using a pair of hobby craft scissors he had bought and his belt buckle. It took him half an hour to unravel and wriggle through a hole. There, he took a brief break, the report says surveillance video shows. At the outer sally port gate, he repeated the process until he was free. That was about 6:53 p.m.
He continued to stay low until he deemed he was far enough away from the prison, the report says. Just before he was out of sight of security cameras, he stood up and walked north into a wooded area behind the prison.
During nearly all of that time — except when he was behind the MSI building — he was visible on security camera, the report says.
“That’s a very good question is how that camera footage was disregarded. How no one was able to pick up on him,” spokesman Russ Marlan said.
The report says that while Elliot was crawling across the yard, prison staff were monitoring the “big yard” rather than the sally port area because there were “several prisoners milling around the yard, and a mass movement was occurring.”
A prison vehicle drove past within 20 feet of the the sally port at least twice — and perhaps as many as four times — while Elliot was pulling apart the fence. Elliot said when he heard the vehicle coming, he would lie still. Because Elliot was dressed in white, he was able to hide in the snow.
The report found microwave zone alarms securing the inside and outside sally port fences went off hours before Elliot’s escape and were shut off, but were never reset. As a result, they did not sound when Elliot escaped.
“The fact that the zones were not secured or re-set was determined to have been in a critical error on the part of the control center monitor room officer,” the report reads in part. “Failure to re-set the zones played a major role in the escape.”
It wasn’t until around 8:20 p.m. — more than an hour after Elliot was already gone — that a corrections lieutenant saw the zones had not been reset and did so. She was alone at the time, having sent two other officers to clean up the break room following a potluck dinner. She did not tell anyone the zones had been unsecured and she did not send anyone to check the fences. She left at 9 p.m. when her shift was over. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes later Elliot was found to be unaccounted for.
“It’s hard to even come up with a reason why. In fact, at about 8:40 when the officer who sat in front of that light — who sat in front of that alarm for almost six hours — got up and left, his supervisor noticed the alarm was flashing and the supervisor simply reset the alarm; did not investigate how long it had been flashing; why it had been flashing,” said Marlan
Two zones that were working didn’t sound because Elliot sneaked under infrared beams that were aimed too high, investigators found.
Furthermore, the alarm that was supposed to go off when the chain link fence between the Level II yard and the MSI building was touched had not been working for “several years.” The report ordered that zone to be repaired.
“This additional security level may prevent future escape attempts through this area and may have prevented the escape,” the report says.
Elliot wasn’t aware of many of the system malfunctions that allowed him to escape, and needed to avoid being seen by a lot of people to make the getaway possible. And that’s what happened — officers on the ground and in trucks didn’t see Elliot either because their backs were turned or because he was able to hide in the snow.
Perimeter gun towers were not staffed at the time. The report says enhanced video surveillance, shock fences and alarm zones had been put in place to compensate.
Inside woodtv.com: Ex-guard breaks down Elliot escape mistakes
It wasn’t until a scheduled 9:15 p.m. formal check that Elliot was discovered to be missing. Once corrections officers knew he had escaped, they initiated emergency procedures. The prison was locked down. Sirens sounded at 9:42 p.m.
A task force was assembled to find Elliot consisting of Michigan State Police, the Ionia Department of Public Safety, MDOC Absconder Recovery Units, MDOC Emergency Response Teams and other law enforcement agencies, the report says. A command center and tip line was set up at Ionia County Central Dispatch.
After getting away from the prison, Elliot walked to Lincoln Road, north of the prison, and then headed east on M-21. He crossed over the highway and took a side street into the City of Ionia. There, he broke into a garage and stole a hammer, a box cutter and a roll of duct tape, the report says.
The report found the prison had properly inventoried its items and that Elliot had not stolen any tools from the prison.
Elliot then headed toward town. There, he carjacked a woman driving a red Jeep Liberty, the report alleges. He allegedly told investigators he threatened the woman with the box cutter.
“Elliot did not hurt her, and stated he did did not want to hurt her of anyone; he just wanted to get away,” the report says Elliot told investigators.
Holding the woman hostage, the pair drove to the area of Elkhart, Ind., at which point they stopped for gas around 11:50 p.m. Elliot let the woman use the bathroom. She locked herself inside and called 911 on a cellphone. In the recording of that 911 call, Elliot can be heard knocking at the bathroom door and telling the woman it was time to go. The woman told him it was taking her longer than expected. She then followed the dispatcher’s instructions to whisper.
Elliot said he realized the woman had locked herself in the bathroom and then took off without her in her Jeep.
“He left the gas station as he was afraid the police were coming,” the report says Elliot told investigators.
The woman was not hurt and was soon met by local police officers.
Prison officials reviewed Elliot’s file, going over known family and contacts, telephone contacts and JPay correspondence — a paid prison email system. The county prosecutor issued escape, carjacking and kidnapping charges.
The U.S. Marshal Service notified out-of-state agencies to be on the lookout for Elliot. Authorities investigated leads in Saginaw, Brighton and Lansing where Elliot was known to have family and contacts. They also investigated whether Elliot could have been headed to his sister’s home in Nashville, Tenn. Some of the possible destinations that authorities checked out where placed under surveillance, the report says.
The stolen Jeep was located on the afternoon of Feb. 3 in Shipshewana, Ind. Local police looked for Elliot, but did not find him.
It was that evening that he was arrested by LaPorte County sheriff’s deputies following a brief chase in a different vehicle Elliot allegedly stole. As of Thursday, he remained there — held on a $1 million bond for auto theft charges — as he fights extradition back to Michigan.
State authorities, meanwhile, have been investigating what went wrong within the prison system that allowed Elliot to escape.
They looked into his prisoner classification — he was rated at Level II, which means he was not a maximum-security inmate. MDOC determined that was an appropriate rating, the report says, but does not specify how authorities reached that conclusion.
The record documenting his 20 years in prison, obtained in February by 24 Hour News 8, shows he had not been in trouble for any misconduct for five years before his escape.
During his interview with authorities at the LaPorte County Jail, Elliot confirmed that he escaped on his own and that no corrections officers were complicit in his efforts.
MDOC’s report included a list of 11 statewide actions being taken in an effort to prevent a future escape:
- The MDOC director or deputy director will personally visit each correctional facility to review what happened in Ionia and impress upon staff the importance of security and public safety.
- MDOC leaders will look at all current security projects and speed them up if needed.
- A warden peer-review process is being set up that will call for wardens to visit each others’ prisons and conduct reviews.
- Wardens are being asked to submit a list of their top five security needs.
- Facilities will conduct a security review of perimeter gates, including sally ports and other entrances and exits.
- Maintenance staffs all over will be checking fences to make sure they work and are in good condition.
- At both regional and facility levels, there will be a review of prisoner shakedown procedures.
- MDOC is reviewing prisoner uniforms to determine if they are visible enough.
- Snow removal strategies are being reviewed by a security team.
- Elliot’s security classification was reviewed.
- The Michigan attorney general’s office is investigating.
As Elliot left a LaPorte County courtroom on Feb. 4, he told 24 Hour News 8 he escaped from the prison because Michigan courts would not give him another chance to fight his convictions — he has always maintained he did not kill anyone. Another man convicted alongside Elliot for the 1993 murders, Charles Treece, told 24 Hour News 8 that Elliot is not guilty.
Elliot has an extradition hearing scheduled for Thursday, March 13.