Searching for Oklahoma prison escapees: A look at how inmates escape, are recaptured

A former prison escapee, warden and state officials discuss Oklahoma escapes over the years and how agencies work together to apprehend inmates.
BY TIFFANY GIBSON and MATT PATTERSON Staff Writers tgibson@opubco.com, mpatterson@opubco.com Modified: December 11, 2011 at 10:22 am •  Published: December 11, 2011

"They were going from house to house, breaking in trying to get away from us," Hunt said.

Eventually both were caught, but Ellison, who was 23, was found dead in his cell at the Tulsa County jail a few days later.

"It turns out that they had a suicide pact if they were ever caught and he went through with it," Hunt said.

Search begins

Every prison has an emergency response team that is assembled after a reported escape. Local and state law enforcement agencies are notified.

People who live near the prison and who have signed up for escape notifications are informed, usually by telephone.

Interviews are conducted with cellmates, prison friends and in some cases family members of the escapees. The files of the escapees are studied for clues such as what friends or relatives they might go to for help.

Emergency response teams of 15 to 40 members can be deployed quickly.

"These teams are made up of correctional officers who go through our academy and who are CLEET certified," Massie said. "They're trained on how to conduct road blocks."

Working with U.S. Marshals

U.S. Marshals also get involved. Hunt said the agency has working agreements with most law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma.

What follows is a whirlwind of activity. Everything about the escapee is explored.

"We examine their criminal history, their manner of escape, whether or not they had inside or outside help, we're going to find out who might have helped them out," Hunt said. "It's a very quick, very intense period of information-gathering."

Authorities check to learn about any area auto thefts or burglaries.

"Most of the time the escapee has very little on them," Hunt said. "They're looking to find resources very quickly whether that's breaking into a house to get clothes or stealing a car."

High profile escapes

Former Warden Jack Cowley saw his share of escapes during his 26-year DOC career. He was warden at the Oklahoma State Reformatory when convicted murderer Randolph Dial escaped with a deputy warden's wife, Bobbi Parker.

"There's always escapes," Cowley said. "They're all a result of some staff error."

Dial was sent to prison after turning himself in 10 years after he murdered a karate instructor in 1981.

Cowley said he was in the process of building an industry where inmates worked on pottery. He said he trusted Dial.

"Dial was allowed to work outside of the building in the deputy warden's house while revamping the pottery program. He was out there making prototypes of what we wanted to do," he said.

Everything was going according to plan until Dial left the house in a van on Aug. 30, 1994 with Parker. At first, it appeared as if Dial might have kidnapped Parker, but a jury thought otherwise.

Dial died in 2007, and Parker was sentenced to one year in prison on Nov. 7 for helping an inmate escape.

"You never really know a hundred percent what people will do," Cowley said. "When inmates escape, you always put out that they're dangerous."

In 1995, Cowley said he had another high profile escape on his hands when two inmates escaped from Granite through an underground tunnel.

Adam Thomas Wright, 26, and Dale Bruce Wadsworth, 43, escaped by digging a tunnel underneath the old west cell house, he said. The duo obtained access to the pipe chases by rigging the locks and were able to dig out of the prison, Cowley said.

Wright was serving two life terms without parole for killing an Anadarko wrecker service operator and his 4-year-old grandson in 1988. Wadsworth was serving a 10-year sentence for forgery in Comanche County.

After receiving a note from a trusted inmate who said they were digging a tunnel, Cowley said he asked staff to see if it was true. He was told it wasn't true, and two days later the two escaped.

"I learned later that he (staff member) actually saw where they were digging," he said.

The duo kidnapped a woman near Elk City, stole her van, raped her and held her baby out of the car window while they were being pursued, Cowley said.

"It was a total disaster," he said. "It was horrible."

On Nov. 3, Wright committed suicide and was found hanging in his cell at the penitentiary in McAlester.

Escape attempts

Throughout the years, Cowley said he has seen numerous creative ways inmates will try to escape — attempt to climb over the razor wire, hide in garbage trucks, dress up as officers and hide in laundry carts.

"If a person loses their liberty, we've got to assume they're going to think of a way to get it back," he said.

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