An escaped state prisoner gained an 18-hour head start on his trackers by using a trick that worked so well 15 years ago, he did it again this week.
Jimmy Causey used a makeshift dummy to dupe corrections officers into believing he was still in his bed at Lieber Correctional Institution, Bryan Stirling, director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, said Friday. Causey then used contraband wire cutters to slice through four fences at the maximum-security Lowcountry prison to gain his freedom.
That tactic is similar to what Causey did in his first escape in 2005 from a high-security Columbia prison.
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The cutters probably were dropped onto prison grounds by a drone, Stirling said during a news conference held to provide some details about the Independence Day escape and Friday’s capture of the 46-year-old career criminal.
Causey left the Dorchester County prison at 8 p.m. on Tuesday – not Wednesday as previously implied by the agency’s announcement that he was discovered missing July 5.
When Causey was pulled Friday from a Motel 6 room in Austin, Texas, he had $47,654 in cash, along with a semiautomatic pistol and a pump-action shotgun, said Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, whose agents worked to catch the fugitive.
Texas Rangers arrested Causey about 4 a.m., Keel said. The escapee did not resist, the SLED chief said.
State legislators and officials are questioning why Causey was not spotted escaping and why no one noticed he had not moved from his bed for 18 hours. South Carolina’s maximum-security prisons have cameras trained on their perimeters and routine headcounts are taken.
During those 18 hours, prison officers would have changed work shifts and at least one regular inmate head count would have happened, said Sen. Karl Allen, a member of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, which oversees the agency.
“That’s a long time for members of the public and officers at the prison to be at risk,” said Allen, D-Greenville.
Fellow committee member Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, voiced some questions others have expressed as well.
“Did he have help from somebody working on the inside? I don’t know,” Shealy said. “Why did nobody notice he was gone? This took a lot of planning.”
An ongoing internal review of what led to the escape has resulted in one Lieber employee being fired, Corrections spokeswoman Sommer Sharpe said. She would not identify the worker or disclose the job the staffer held, citing the agency’s investigation. The probe will include whether policies and procedures were followed, Stirling said.
Causey had been in solitary confinement at the prison near the town of Ridgeville, but had been moved to a general population wing that is overseen by two corrections officers, Stirling said.
The prison director would not say where Causey would be held once he’s back in South Carolina. But Stirling said he would be under “high, high security.”
Who helped Causey and whether prison guards were involved is part of the internal investigation, Stirling said.
“We had focused all of our resources on finding him,” the director said. “Now that we have found him, we’re shifting our resources to finding out how this happened.”
After Friday’s news conference, key questions remain:
▪ How did Causey get as far as Texas?
▪ Where did he get so much cash?
▪ How broad is the conspiracy involving the escape and his escape route?
▪ What does prison security video show?
Causey was serving life sentences for the 2002 home invasion of well-known Columbia attorney Jack Swerling, his wife and their daughter. They were bound and threatened with guns.
In 2005, while serving his sentence at Broad River Correctional Institution, Causey and another inmate used dummies made of clothes and toilet paper to mislead guards. Causey then hid in a dumpster that was carried away by a trash truck.
Prison mobile phone debate
Stirling used Causey’s escape to highlight his agency’s campaign to get the federal government to allow state prisons to block cellphone signals on prison grounds.
Prisoners often use cellphones to scam people and continue to commit crimes from behind prison walls, Stirling said. He theorized that is how Causey accumulated so much money.
“Well-planned escapes like this will continue to happen,” as long as prisoners can use contraband cellphones, he said.
Shealy agrees with Stirling that contraband phones are a serious problem that needs to be fixed.
“We have people making videos in their cells, they call in hits on people on the outside,” Shealy said. “They should not have access to cellphones or the internet.”
Gov. Henry McMaster echoed Stirling in calling for the Federal Communications Commission to allow for the jamming of cellphone signals at state prisons.
“As fast as we confiscate the phones, new ones are smuggled in by drones or thrown in over the fences,” McMaster said Friday in a video posted on social media.
The state is working to persuade the FCC to allow the jamming of signals, he said.
The suspected use of a drone to get wire cutters to Causey raises other concerns for state prison officials.
“We’re spending $7.65 million on netting” to stop someone throwing items over the fence to inmates, Stirling said. “The next thing they’re going to do is drones.”
Allen said he wants deeper explanations from the Corrections Department.
“I’m requesting the chairman of the Corrections and Penology Committee to speed up the transparency and openness of the department, because the public deserves to be informed,” Allen said.