INDIAN RIVER COUTY, Fla. - Sheriff Deryl Loar has spent the last 18 months overseeing improvements at the county jail to make it more secure. He recently watched a video he said indicates he and his corrections staff still have more work to do.
On Oct. 23, 2011, convicted killers Leviticus Taylor and Rondell Reed escaped from the jail. The Sheriff's Office said a lack of thorough checks of the cellmates' cell allowed the plot to go undiscovered.
But Loar learned of another clue that could have tipped off corrections staff that something was afoot.
Four days before the escape, Sadie Welker walked into the visitation center at the jail for a closed circuit television phone call with Taylor, her boyfriend. Eight minutes into the call, Taylor raised his right hand and began using American Sign Language.
The letters he made with his hands spelled out "I Getting Out," according to a sign language expert, who reviewed the film after it was released to WPTV Channel 5 last month.
"It's frustrating," said Loar, who had not seen the video clip before last month. "If we had known that had happened, that might have prevented the escape. The lesson learned here is enormous. "
Investigators, said Welker, had some knowledge the escape would be attempted, though it has never been specified how she learned about it.
Taylor's sign language may have been the signal, but Loar said it's difficult to know if that communication alone was enough of a hint for Welker.
Nonetheless, the sign language clip will spark some changes at the Sheriff's Office. "This will be in a training video," Loar said. "I'll likely be sharing it with all 67 sheriffs in Florida. "
Shortly after Taylor and Reed hammered, climbed, squeezed and dug their way out of the jail, Welker showed up to pick up Taylor a few blocks south, the Sheriff's Office said. She drove to Martin County and dropped off her boyfriend.
"It's possible we overlooked Taylor because in another 10 days he would have been shipped off to a state prison," Loar said. "Who would know that Levi Taylor was somewhat proficient at sign language?"
What Taylor wasn't proficient at was avoiding the manhunt that ensued after his escape. About 12 hours after the breakout was discovered, a Martin County Sheriff's deputy spotted Taylor walking alone on a street in the Jensen Beach area. He's serving life in prison for using a concrete block to kill 63-year-old Vero Beach resident Nestor Perez during a robbery.
Click below to listen to 911 calls received by authorities during the manhunt for Taylor and Reed.
Welker was arrested that same day after she made a Facebook posting about Taylor and was convicted of aiding the escape.
Corrections staff have spent several months tightening security at the jail. But the visitation system wasn't mentioned on the list of two dozen improvements made since late 2011.
Now, the Sheriff's Office has the daunting task of determining how best to review the several hours of visitation video that could accumulate in a single day.
When visitors go to the Sheriff's Office to talk with an inmate, they walk into a building separate from the jail. Inside, there are 41 booths with video screens. Inside the jail, there's a similar set up where the inmates will pick up the phone and appear on screen.
"There could be 30 to 40 people in the room at one time," Loar said.
On a recent Tuesday morning, just a handful of visitors were making calls to inmates. But staff said on weekends and holidays, the visitation room is full.
All video of the calls is recorded, but not all of it is reviewed. "We can't afford to have an employee look at all the videos," Loar said. "What we could do is emphasize the red suits (the high-risk inmate population)."
Narrowing down the number of inmate calls to review could make the task more manageable, though it may still be difficult to look at them all in a timely manner.
The Sheriff's Office may have had as little as three days to react to Taylor's sign language video. The escape happened on Oct. 23, 2011, but Reed said in an interview with Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers the pair made a failed attempt to escape on Oct. 22.
Welker was sentenced to two years in prison for aiding in the crime. She's serving her time at the Lowell Correctional Center in Ocala and is scheduled for release on July 26.
Reed was captured in Ohio five days after the escape. He's serving a life sentence after he pleaded guilty to the murder of Sebastian auto repair shop owner James Malone.
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY JAIL IMPROVEMENTS
The October 2011 escape at the facility led to about two dozen procedural changes and security enhancements. Here's a list of some:
- Camera surveillance: 64 cameras were added throughout the facility, providing a total of 256. Cost: $58,652
- Utility room doors: Two steel bars and a bolt have been added to all 48 doors. Cost: $8,945
- Concrete base: A work crew poured concrete along the 1,100-foot perimeter fence where last year's escapees dug their way to freedom. The concrete is 8 feet wide and 8 inches deep. Cost: $50,000
- Razor wire: On top of the concrete is five new rolls of razor wire to impede the path of someone who tries to reach the fence. Cost: $76,890
- Lighting: An ongoing plan is under way to add lights along the fences.
- Searches: Corrections deputies have increased their searches of the housing area and the perimeter fences.
- Law library: Because of reports of objects being hidden in the room, the books have been removed and replaced with a touch screen kiosk.