COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When it came time for lights out at Lieber Correctional Institution on the evening of July Fourth, officers at the maximum-security South Carolina prison thought they had all 1,300 inmates accounted for.
But convicted kidnapper Jimmy Causey wasn’t in his bunk, a homemade dummy stuffed under the covers in his place. By the time prison officials realized Causey was missing, he’d already been gone for nearly a full day. Authorities gave new details of his plot following his capture early Friday after more than two days on the run.
Aided by wire cutters that authorities believe were flown in by a drone, Causey made it out of his cell, exited the dorm and cut through a series of metal fences. Authorities haven’t said if he had a getaway car waiting for him.
But Causey got away, and fast. By the time officials confirmed he was gone, Causey had an 18-hour head start on law enforcement. He made it 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to Austin, Texas, where he was captured.
When authorities nabbed Causey early Friday morning as he slept in a motel, he had a pistol, a shotgun, four cellphones and $47,000 in cash.
Authorities are in the process of extraditing Causey to South Carolina, where he’ll be sent to one of the prison system’s most secure facilities. Officials are still probing exactly what happened leading up to and following the escape.
State Corrections Director Bryan Stirling wouldn’t say if staff errors contributed to Causey’s escape, but he told reporters Friday that one officer would have been on duty in the area near Causey’s cell around when he got out. Later Friday, Corrections officials told The Associated Press one Lieber employee had been fired in connection with Causey’s escape.
It was Causey’s second prison escape in 12 years. In 2005, Causey also used a dummy — this one made from toilet paper — to trick officers into thinking he was asleep in his bunk at a different South Carolina prison. He and another inmate hid in a garbage truck that was leaving the maximum-security institution. They were arrested three days later after a woman delivering pizza to a motel called police.
The use of drones has increased as a way to deliver contraband such as drugs and cellphones to prisons across the U.S., including two recent cases in South Carolina. In May, two men were arrested for trying to fly knives, marijuana and phones into a medium-security state prison. Another man is serving a 15-year sentence after officials found a crashed drone outside a maximum-security institution in 2014.
Kevin Tamez, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who consults on prison security as managing partner of the New Jersey-based MPM Group, said he wasn’t aware of any other U.S. prison escapes aided by drones.
Stirling said the state is spending millions to install netting at prisons to prevent people from throwing things over, but confessed that won’t stop drones.
“Now they’re going to fly over the nets,” he said. “So what do we do next?”
For Stirling, it’s contraband cellphones that represent the biggest security threat, both inside and out of the prison. Last month, six correctional officers were rescued after an attempted confiscation of an inmate’s cellphone prompted a fight at a different prison in South Carolina.
In 2010, a veteran South Carolina correctional officer survived being shot six times at his home after officials say an inmate planned the shooting and used an illegal cellphone to coordinate with the shooter.
Stirling, who for years has spoken out about the dangers posed by inmates’ access to illegal cellphones behind bars, has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to jam cell signals at South Carolina prisons. Chairman Ajit Pai has said he’s sympathetic to the problem, but the FCC has previously said its hands are tied by a decades-old law that says the agency can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. Any change is opposed by the cellphone industry, out of concern it could lead to wider gaps in their networks.
Frustrated that Causey’s escape is yet another security problem involving smuggled cellphones, Stirling urged the public to call their representatives in Congress and demand a solution such as the ability to jam signals at prison.
“It is senseless to me that the federal government continues to prohibit state officials and state prisons from blocking cellphones,” he said. “It needs to be fixed now. It needs to be fixed yesterday.”
Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.