BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - December 4, 2018 marked one year since two prisoners somehow slipped out of a maximum-security state prison and since then, no details have been released by Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) on how the prisoners pulled it off. Recent court records confirm some particulars given to WBRC by one of the escapees, that items used in the escape included a pair of bolt cutters, hacksaw blades and a handgun.
It was during the early morning hours of December 4, 2017 that Antwone Wilson and Ronald King broke out of St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, about 40 miles northeast of Birmingham. Area schools were put on soft lockdown and a manhunt by law enforcement got underway. King, whose convictions included sexual torture, rape and burglary, was recaptured in Birmingham a day after he escaped. Wilson, serving a life-without-parole sentence for robbery, managed to elude authorities for five days before he was arrested in a Florida hotel.
Wilson was recently indicted for the escape, charged with one count of first degree escape and three counts of promoting prison contraband. The grand injury indictment from St. Clair County lists the forbidden items in his possession which may have been used in the escape, including “a Taurus firearm, bolt cutters and hacksaw blades.”
King has also been charged in the escape, but his case is still pending the outcome of grand jury hearings, according to the St. Clair County District Attorney’s office.
ADOC Director of Investigations Arnaldo Mercado confirmed the prisoners had those items when they escaped, but would not comment on how they obtained them or whether current or former prison staff members are under investigation for helping in the escape. He said the investigation is open and ongoing, but needs to remain confidential. As to why the investigation has taken a year, Mercado said he is hoping to be done soon, but can’t put a date on when the work will be complete.
“We are following every single lead and we’re going to exhaust all leads before we reach a conclusion,” Mercado said. “We want to make sure we are able to secure convictions of those involved, regardless of who they are.”
Wilson first contacted WBRC by phone while he was on the run and said he broke out of prison because he’s innocent of the robbery that landed him in prison with a life sentence. Since he was recaptured, Wilson has called WBRC several times from prison and said corrupt prison employees sold him the items used to facilitate the escape, including a loaded handgun and a pair of bolt cutters that he and King used to cut through a section of the prison fence. He said he paid employees $10,000 for the items and planned the escape a month in advance.
Director Mercado said Wilson has provided ADOC investigators with leads that they are pursuing, which may result in criminal charges in the near future. Wilson is currently in protective custody at an ADOC facility.
“If those leads prove to be truthful, we will issue arrest warrants for those individuals, if we can prove that they were involved,” Mercado said.
WBRC also received copies of several posed photographs of Wilson, purportedly taken inside the prison. In one, Wilson is holding a handgun, in the others he sits on what appears to be a prison bunk with a pair of bolt cutters stuck in his pants and a handgun on his lap. Wilson is also wearing jewelry, with a “black and mild” cigar in his mouth, all considered contraband items by ADOC.
In the weeks following the escape, a prison employee sent WBRC a picture that appears to show the repaired section of fence where Wilson and King escaped. The employee, who asked that we withhold using his name for fear of retaliation from prison administration, said prison officials patched up the damaged fence along the prison’s sally port gate with welded steel and a new section of fencing. The employee said many officers agreed that numerous blind spots, poor lighting and a lack of surveillance cameras allowed the prisoners to slip away undetected.
Director Mercado said ADOC conducted an internal and external investigation following the escape and has taken steps to mitigate and correct deficiencies at the facility, but he would not provide specific details due to security concerns.
Days after the escape, former St. Clair Correctional Warden David Wise called it an unacceptable security failure that resulted from lack of proper staff. Wise, who retired in 2010 after 28 years with ADOC, said he was not surprised to hear that the prisoners may have had help in the escape from inside the facility.
“I hate to say that, but there’s a lot of corrupt officers walking around in that prison," Wise said.
Wise also pointed out that a loaded gun inside a prison presents an unprecedented security risk. In 1985, when Wise was a young correctional officer, a group of prisoners at St. Clair Correctional used a gun to take control of the prison and riot. Dozens of inmates and officers were beaten, a warden suffered a broken jaw and a nurse was raped.
Mercado admitted he considers the 2017 escape one of the most serous security breakdowns within ADOC, but pointed out the incident shed light on some areas that needed corrective action. Still, he does not believe St. Clair Correctional is particularly vulnerable to security meltdowns.
“We understand the seriousness of the incident,” Mercado said. “We haven’t had an escape happen again from a major facility.”
The December 2017 escape was not the first time prisoners have broken out of St. Clair Correctional. In 2000, a group known as the “St. Clair six” escaped by using a makeshift broom to dig under an electrified fence and crawl out. All six were eventually recaptured.
WBRC has reported on the extraordinary level of violence at St. Clair Correctional Facility for years. The prison was the target of a class action lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 2014, that claimed homicides, stabbings, sexual assaults and robberies occurred on a daily basis. The lawsuit was settled in October 2017, when both EJI and ADOC agreed to implement new reforms to improve inmate and employee safety, security and management of the prison. Earlier this year, EJI cited three fatal stabbings as evidence of the need for “immediate intervention.”
In October, WBRC reported on ADOC’s struggle to control contraband, including illicit and prescription drugs, weapons and cell phones. Earlier this year, former ADOC officer Justin Watts was arrested and charged with bringing drugs into St. Clair Correctional. Watts is charged with multiple drug felonies in both St. Clair and Calhoun counties including trafficking synthetic marijuana, promoting prison contraband, marijuana possession, possession of a controlled substance and using his position for personal gain.
Over the last year, WBRC asked ADOC several times for an update on the escape investigation, but each time a spokesperson said the investigation was ongoing and no details could be released.
Mercado said the public can have faith that ADOC will exhaust every lead until it reaches a conclusion as to exactly how the two prisoners were able to escape, and whether anyone on the inside assisted them.
“I can assure you, once we conclude our investigation, we will put all the information out and will be 100% transparent,” he said.