Escaped N.J. inmate returned from Mexico

January 10, 2008 6:17:45 PM PST
A fugitive whose escape from a New Jersey jail spurred a search ending in Mexico City and led to the suicide of a corrections officer returned Thursday as authorities sought details on how he managed to elude capture for nearly a month.

Otis Blunt arrived at the Union County police headquarters in Westfield, N.J., after being transported by van from John F. Kennedy Airport. 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."

Authorities questioned a woman who was in the hotel room when Blunt was arrested, according to James T. Plousis, U.S. Marshal for New Jersey. He said her identity and possible role in Blunt's escape were not immediately clear.

Blunt, awaiting trial for robbery and weapons offenses, was arrested by Mexican Federal Police without incident Wednesday at a "$10-a-night hotel" in Mexico City, New Jersey authorities 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.

A second prisoner who escaped with Blunt, 20-year-old Jose Espinosa, was apprehended Tuesday night in an apartment in Elizabeth about a mile from the Union County Jail. Espinosa was taken to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton after his capture; Blunt was likely to be transported there as well, though Union County authorities had not announced the transfer Thursday afternoon.

Blunt was found less than 24 hours after breaking off telephone contact with representatives of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who had traveled to Mexico City to negotiate his surrender.

On Thursday, Sharpton defended himself against criticism by some New Jersey authorities for not contacting them immediately after a friend of Blunt's called Sharpton's National Action Network last Sunday.

"I think what is very chilling to me is those who attempt to politicize people doing the right thing," he said, noting that he contacted New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo before he traveled to Mexico City.

"It's the absurdity of a turf war between those in law enforcement rather than to deal with the immediacy of the situation," Sharpton added.

Brian Major, the longtime friend who Blunt called on Sunday, contacted Sharpton's representatives. Major said Thursday that Blunt was ready to surrender when he first called, 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."

Since Blunt was declared an undesirable in Mexico, there were no formal extradition proceedings, Plousis said.

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

The escape was discovered by Corrections Officer Rudolph Zurick, who found a sarcastic note left by the prisoners thanking him for his "help." Zurick committed suicide at his South Amboy home Jan. 2, the day he was to speak to investigators.

Though authorities had repeatedly said they had no evidence that Zurick or any other guard gave any aid, they revealed it took guards 20 hours to realize the inmates had escaped from the most fortified section of the jail.

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

"At most we're looking at negligence by corrections officers," Romankow said.

Authorities have said the pair used photos of bikini-clad women to hide the holes they dug, a move out of "The Shawshank Redemption."

Guards first raised an alarm for Espinosa and Blunt about 5 p.m. on Dec. 15. The men had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping.

Authorities believe the men escaped the night before by squeezing through the openings onto a third-floor rooftop, then leaping over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

New security has been instituted since the breakout, the first since the jail opened in 1986. Head counts, for instance, are now taken with inmates standing.

Once free, the men fled in separate directions.

Espinosa, who sprained his ankle, walked north, hailed a cab at the nearby train station, and stayed in a motel before holing up in the apartment, Romankow said.

Authorities got a tip about Espinosa's whereabouts and he surrendered without incident. During his capture, a 19-year-old woman was charged with resisting arrest; it was unclear if she would face other charges.

Associated Press staffers Jeffrey Gold in Newark, N.J., and Michael Derer in Westfield, N.J., contributed to this story.