Second fugitive inmate captured

January 10, 2008 3:40:56 PM PST
As a fugitive captured in Mexico was brought back to New Jersey Thursday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said criticism of his efforts to get the escapee to surrender was due to a law enforcement "turf war." Otis Blunt, awaiting trial for robbery and weapons offenses, was arrested by Mexican Federal Police without incident Wednesday at a hotel in Mexico City, New Jersey authorities said.

Blunt, 32, arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport, and was taken by van to a police station in Westfield in central New Jersey. He emerged from the van wearing jeans, a striped shirt, dark overcoat and handcuffs.

When asked about getting caught, Blunt said, "Ain't nobody was trying to get away, I could have gotten away if I wanted to."

Since Blunt was declared an undesirable in Mexico, there were no formal extradition proceedings, U.S. Marshal James T. Plousis said.

He said Sharpton's visit this week to Mexico City indirectly helped in Blunt's arrest; he noted it raised public interest and a lot of tips had been generated.

Sharpton spoke at a news conference Thursday with Brian Major, the longtime friend of Blunt's whom the escaped prisoner called last Sunday. Major then called Charlie King, the acting executive director of Sharpton's National Action Network, sparking Sharpton's involvement.

Sharpton was criticized by Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow for not keeping in touch with his office during the three days leading up to Blunt's apprehension. But Sharpton said he contacted New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo before going to Mexico City.

"I think what is very chilling to me is those who attempt to politicize people doing the right thing," he said. "It's the absurdity of a turf war between those in law enforcement rather than to deal with the immediacy of the situation."

Blunt was found by marshals and Mexican authorities at a "$10-a-night hotel," Romankow said.

According to John Cuff, chief of the U.S. Marshals Investigative Service Division, Blunt took a bus from New Jersey to Laredo, Texas, and another bus to Mexico.

The inmate was in contact with Major, Sharpton and King until Tuesday afternoon and appeared close to surrendering.

According to Major, Blunt was ready to surrender when he first called last Sunday but may have gotten cold feet when he failed to call Sharpton back Tuesday afternoon in Mexico City.

"This whole thing was based on one principle, of voluntary surrender," Major said. "We didn't try to pursue Otis at all."

Authorities questioned a woman who was in the hotel room when Blunt was arrested, Plousis said. He said her identity and possible role in Blunt's escape were not immediately clear.

A cohort in the daring breakout, Jose Espinosa, 20, was also apprehended this week, but he was in an apartment only a mile from the Union County Jail, authorities said. He was taken to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, authorities said.

Romankow said Blunt swiped a 10-pound steel valve wheel from a standpipe in an area that should have been locked, and that both men used it to bash the cinderblocks between their cells and on an exterior wall.

They flushed the debris down the toilet, and used photos of bikini-clad women to hide holes they dug, authorities said.

The escape, and Blunt's flight, echoed the plot of the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," in which the main character uses posters of women to conceal his escape tunnel and eventually flees to Mexico.

The inmates left a sarcastic note thanking one of their guards for helping them, although authorities have said there was no evidence that the guard did so. The guard, Rudolph Zurick, committed suicide Jan. 2.

The escape investigation has found no evidence that guards knowingly assisted the prisoners, Romankow said. "At most we're looking at negligence by corrections officers," Romankow said.

--- Associated Press writers Jeffrey Gold in Newark and Michael Derer in Westfield contributed to this story.