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Wednesday, 27 November 2013 14:56

The how-to of a jail break

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It was a fairly simple inside job in the end, one easily borrowed from the playbook of any Hollywood jailbreak.

Anita Vestal was just a novice jailer, with less than six months on the job at the Swain County jail. But she single-handedly sprang an inmate charged in a bloodbath of a double murder.

 

Court testimony in Vestal’s ongoing trial suggested she fell for inmate Jeffrey Miles romantically despite the fact that he was the suspected ringleader of a violent home invasion and robbery that snowballed into a terrifying killing spree.

Just one door and one gate separated Miles from freedom. Vestal had the keys to both and the power to divert the other jailers’ attention while Miles made his getaway.

Vestal had been planning the escape for days, possibly weeks, when it finally went down on the Saturday morning of March 21, 2009. The following account of the jailbreak is based on witness testimony and evidence from Vestal’s trial.

SEE ALSO: Awaiting her fate

Vestal and Miles had been developing an unseemly rapport in the weeks leading up to the escape. A fellow jailer even passed concerns up the chain of command after he witnessed them “flirting.” 

Sheriff Curtis Cochran and the jail administrator verbally reprimanded Vestal for being too friendly with Miles. Assuming she’d been warned and would stop, they left it at that. 

Jailers regularly enter the dorm-style quarters where inmates live and sleep. Vestal had unrestricted access to scheme with Miles and ultimately relay to him the steps of her concocted plan.

She slipped him two keys. The first key would get him out a back door and into an outside sally port where inmates are loaded and unloaded. The second would get him through the sally port gate where Vestal’s van would be waiting.

She had stashed a set of street clothes in the van for Miles to change into, along with a set for herself.

The morning of the jailbreak, Vestal went into the jail’s control room and told the operator on duty to take a 15-minute break, even though it wasn’t his break time yet. But Vestal was a jail sergeant, which made her the shift supervisor, so the controller complied.

That left Vestal as the only eyes and ears for what was happening in the inmate quarters.

The control room is like the central nervous system for the jail. The controller monitors video feeds for all the jails’ cameras, makes sure inmates are behaving, and can lock and unlock all the jail’s doors and gates using a touch screen.

From the control room, Vestal watched the video feed of Miles making his escape. When he was clear, Vestal left the control room and told another jailer sitting at the front booking desk that she was leaving to pick up medication.

“She set her keys and radio down on the booking desk and said ‘I have to go pick up my medication,’ and that was the last I saw of her,” recounted Jamie Sneed, a Swain jailer on shift at the time.

When Vestal left, the control-room operator was still on his 15-minute break, standing outside the sheriff’s office adjacent to the jail talking with a couple of other deputies. When he resumed his post, he didn’t immediately notice Miles was missing.

The inmates live in “pods,” akin to a bunkhouse with a communal living area. The dorm-like layout is common in modern jails, allowing a single jailer to watch over a few dozen inmates at a time. Miles’ absence wouldn’t be noticed immediately by the control-room operator, given the number of inmates wandering around in the pod.

Vestal got in the van and drove it to her house where they swapped it with a pickup truck and started their journey to California.

“They spend three days driving across the country and then are in a hotel room that she never leaves for three weeks,” Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch said.

By that Saturday afternoon, news of Miles’ jailbreak had spread through Swain County. Residents were on edge, with many keeping their guns close at hand for days in case they came face-to-face with the murder suspect. 

Vestal kept her cool surprisingly well as the escape went down. She was a “very quiet” person  and “good worker,” according to Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran. She didn’t invite conversation, which ultimately served her well the day she carried out the jailbreak.

There were several red flags that went unnoticed that day, however.

One jailer testified it was unusual for Vestal to park outside the sally port gate. Jailers usually park in the parking lot near the main entrance to the jail and sheriff’s office.

It was also unusual for Vestal to order the control room operator to take a break at an unassigned break time.

And it was unusual for Vestal to suddenly leave in the middle of her own shift.

The Swain County jail was brand new at the time of the jailbreak. Jailers were still getting used to the gated sally ports for loading and unloading inmates, the touch screen door locks, the fleet of motion sensor cameras and a central control room with a big bank of monitors.

The old jail they had recently vacated dated to the 1920s, a throwback to Andy Griffith days. Inmates were housed in rows of cells with iron bars and doors that opened with keys. Jailers monitored them with their own eyes, not with cameras.

The high-tech nature of the new jail ultimately was its own downfall. Checks and balances were left in the hands of technology, and human redundancy – supposedly – was no longer needed. But Vestal showed it was all too easy for a single jailer to manipulate the system.

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