TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Two recaptured killers who walked away from life terms in a Florida prison had “a lot of help” obtaining forged release papers, and more arrests are coming, the head of the state’s law enforcement agency said on Sunday.
The two convicted murderers, released from the Apalachicola Correctional Institute on forged documents that reduced their life-without-parole sentences, were recaptured on Saturday at a motel in Panama City Beach, located on the Florida Panhandle.
Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker were believed to be waiting to be transported to another state when they were found, Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, said at a news briefing.
“They had to have had help, and a lot of help, to get to where they were last night,” Bailey said.
Walker and Jenkins, both 34, had brief, routine court appearances on Sunday and were being held in jail in Bay County, Florida, authorities said.
After questioning the pair, police were seeking several “associates,” Bailey said.
“While the manhunt is over, there’s still a lot that we do not know. I can tell you, there will be more arrests,” he said.
Authorities declined to discuss details of how the bogus release papers came to be created, but said an assistant prosecutor grew suspicious of paperwork that had been signed by officials who do not normally handle sentence reductions.
Authorities said that from now on, the state prison system has told court clerks to check with judges before accepting any sentence-reduction or release papers bearing their signatures.
Bailey said two previous attempts at forging release papers had been caught in routine screening procedures.
In this case, investigators have some speculative leads on how the forgery might have been accomplished, he said.
“There is speculation - and underline ‘speculation’ - that there was a source where, for a certain sum of money, that these documents could be constructed for $8,000,” said Bailey. “Whether it’s true or not will be determined.”
Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Crews said prisons receive sentence modifications every day, usually to correct errors in crediting “gain time” or other sentencing details, but it is rare that a life sentence would be cut.
Chief Judge Belvin Perry of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, whose signature was on the documents but who had nothing to do with the escapees’ cases, told CNN the forgers apparently had found his autograph on court documents online and cut and pasted it electronically onto release papers.
He said the genuine-looking signature probably was from documents for the Casey Anthony trial, a case in which the Florida woman was acquitted of the 2008 killing of her daughter.
“It doesn’t surprise me, it was just a matter of time. It shows that we need to do more in authentication of documents,” Perry said.
Walker was serving life without parole for second-degree murder in the 1999 slaying of Cedric Slater, 23, in Orlando, while Jenkins was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Roscoe Pugh in a botched robbery.
“I don’t mind telling you, I did a lot of praying for the past five or six days,” said Crews. “These were two hardened, convicted felons, and the thought of them being out there in our state caused me great concern.”
To protect the investigation, Bailey and Crews would not discuss some details of the forgeries. But Bailey said: “The documents themselves looked good, they looked official.”
Crews said prison officials planned to work with court clerks on improving security.
“It is embarrassing, but my concentration at this point ... is that we come up with a process and procedure that prohibits this happening in the future,” he said.
Jenkins fled the prison on September 27 and Walker on October 8, and both men had registered at the Orange County courthouse as released felons within three days of their erroneous discharges.
Bailey said the two had been in Bay County, where Panama City Beach is located, for about 48 hours and investigators were piecing together the trail they had taken after they fled the prison.
Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Ellen Wulfhorst, Jackie Frank and Leslie Adler