Back in court after daring escape

January 18, 2008 1:48:59 PM PST
Two inmates returned Friday to the scene of their daring Hollywood-style escape last month that led to an international manhunt and the suicide of one of their guards. Jose Espinosa, an admitted killer, and Otis Blunt, a robbery suspect, made their first court appearances since their captures last week. The hearing was held in a courtroom inside the Union County Jail in Elizabeth.

In a proceeding that lasted a few minutes, both were ordered held on $4 million bail by Judge Joan Robinson Gross. Their next court appearance was scheduled for March 5 in state Superior Court to determine if the matter can be resolved before being sent to a grand jury.

Espinosa appeared first in a cinderblock and glass enclosure inside the small courtroom and was flanked by five officers. He spoke only to answer 'Yes' when asked his name. His lawyer, Marc D'Arienzo entered a not guilty plea to a charge of escape.

Espinosa was then taken out of the enclosure and Blunt was brought in. Blunt, who appeared without an attorney, clarified the spelling of his first name for the judge, and said he has not been allowed to see his lawyer. No plea was immediately entered for Blunt.

Both face a second-degree charge of escape, which carries up to 10 years in prison, although D'Arienzo said it might be reduced to third-degree charge, which carries up to five years.

The two men were to be returned to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. They have been held there to avoid possible reprisals in the jail.

Outside the jail, D'Arienzo said Espinosa was sorry about the guard's suicide. "For whatever extent he contributed, he'd like to extend his heartfelt condolences," the lawyer said.

He said Espinosa and Blunt had planned to flee to Mexico together, but that Espinosa hurt his leg leaping to freedom.

"I know this has a Hollywood ring to it, but this isn't Hollywood. This is reality," D'Arienzo said.

Nearby was Espinosa's girlfriend, Odalys Cortes, who said she had only been with him two days in the basement apartment before U.S. Marshals found them. Cortes, 19, who wore three gold studs in her face, said she was scared and threw herself to the ground with her hands spread when they burst in.

The inmates had remained at large nearly four weeks before Espinosa, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was found in a basement apartment a mile from the jail on Jan. 8. Blunt was captured the next day in a cheap Mexico City hotel.

Their breakout, the first since the jail opened in 1986, prompted a review of security procedures that has so far resulted in more patrols and more cameras. The two men had been in single cells in what was considered the most secure section of the jail.

Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow is overseeing an investigation into how the men escaped. Although the inmates left a sarcastic note thanking a guard, Romankow has said no guard knowingly aided the escapees.

The guard named in the note, Rudolph Zurick, 40, committed suicide at his South Amboy home Jan. 2, the day he was to speak to investigators.

When they disappeared Dec. 14, Blunt, 32, was awaiting trial for robbery and weapons offenses, while Espinosa, 20, was awaiting sentencing to a possible 17-year term after pleading guilty to manslaughter in a 2005 drive-by shooting.

To engineer the escape, Romankow has 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.

The pair used photos of bikini-clad women to hide the holes, a trick used by the main character in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption."

Authorities believe the men escaped the night of Dec. 14 by squeezing through the openings onto a third-floor rooftop, then leaping over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire.

The men had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping, and guards did not notice until about 20 hours later, about 5 p.m. on Dec. 15.