ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — As authorities search for two convicted killers freed by bogus paperwork, questions linger about who created the legitimate-looking documents that exposed gaps in Florida's judicial system.
Within days of walking out of prison, Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who had been sentenced to life, traveled about 300 miles to a jail an Orlando and registered as felons. They signed paperwork. They were fingerprinted, and they were even photographed before walking out of the jail without raising any alarms. Had one of the murder victim's families not contacted prosecutors, authorities might not have known about the mistaken releases.
"We're looking at the system's breakdown, I'm not standing here to point the finger at anyone at this time," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men. He said he believed they were still in the central Florida area.
In light of the errors, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and state legislators promised to hold investigative hearings to figure out how the documents — complete with case numbers and a judge's forged signature — duped the system.
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail in Orlando on Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered there three days later.
Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
By registering as the law required, they likely drew less attention.
"If there's no hit that comes back, they're free to go," said Isaiah Dennard, the Florida Sheriff's Association's jail services coordinator.
If felons do not register, a warrant is put out for their arrest, Dennard said.
The sheriff said there had been some sightings of the men, and "most" of their families were cooperating, but he didn't go into specifics about either detail. Police were offering a $5,000 reward for help and billboards were going up in the area.
Authorities learned about the mistaken release when one of the murder victim's families notified the state attorney's office. Dennard said victims' families are automatically notified when a felon is released, typically by a computer voice-generated phone call.
It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor's office and judge. Both orders also called for 15-year sentences.
"There's reason to suspect that these aren't the first occasions," Demings said later of the releases.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.
Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention, including that's it uncommon for a request for sentence reduction to come from prosecutors.