By David Eggert, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) — A convicted quadruple killer escaped from a Michigan prison for 24 hours last month primarily because guards didn’t properly operate the motion-detector alarms at a gate the inmate pried open with scissors and a belt buckle, investigators concluded Thursday.
A control center officer failed to reset two alarms for 5½ hours after they were tested, and a supervisor who noticed the problem left when her shift was over without notifying others to check the gate, according to a report by the state Corrections Department’s internal affairs division.
If the alarms had been properly reactivated, the investigation found, Michael Elliot could have been detected in the vicinity of a vehicle gate during his nearly three-hour escape Feb. 2. Investigators deemed it a “critical error” that played a “major role.”
Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said the motion detectors previously have been tripped by birds and squirrels, possibly leading guards to sometimes ignore the alarms, although in this case, the alarms weren’t properly set.
The review also determined an alarm sensor in another area of the Ionia Correctional Facility was misaligned and pointing too high, allowing Elliot — who dressed entirely in white to blend with snow — to crawl underneath an invisible detection beam without being noticed. Informal prisoner accounts also weren’t done during the afternoon shift.
The 40-year-old serving life without parole was caught 24 hours later in Indiana, but not before he allegedly took a woman hostage.
“Security equipment is only as good as the individuals using it,” Marlan said. “To test it and not reset it for hours and hours made it virtually useless that day.”
Two officers have been suspended over the escape, which also is being reviewed by the state attorney general at the request of Gov. Rick Snyder and by the Legislature’s corrections ombudsman.
Elliot, who was classified as a lower security risk, chose Super Bowl Sunday because he thought staff at the prison about 30 miles east of Grand Rapids might be distracted, according to the report. But investigators found no evidence the game was a factor. They also uncovered no evidence that Elliot had help from inmates or staff.
Marlan said the suspended employees may have been complacent or incompetent.
The Associated Press called one of the suspended workers, Lt. Shundra Cheeks, for comment, but her voicemail was full. A message seeking comment was also left for the union representing corrections officers.
Elliot, who is fighting extradition to Michigan, told investigators another prisoner pointed out that the sally port letting vehicles in and out was a weak spot in security. Elliot said he began devising an escape plan months ago and took it more seriously when he realized piled-up snow could be used as cover.
Authorities say this is the account he gave to investigators:
He skipped chow around 4 p.m. and put civilian clothes underneath white thermal underwear, which he covered with the standard blue prison uniform, the report said. He went to the yard and, when a guard turned his back, hid behind a building while shedding his uniform.
Elliot by that point was wearing white thermals, white shoes and a white mask.
He used a hook from the locker in his “housing unit cubicle” to clear snow under a fence and crawl under. When he reached the vehicle gate, Elliot stopped and lay still when a perimeter patrol vehicle came nearby a few times, as close as 20 feet to the outside gate.
He used hobby craft scissors and his belt to open the chain link fencing. Once he was out, just before 7 p.m., he moved down a road and took a hammer, box cutter and roll of Duct Tape from an open garage.
Officials say after the escape, Elliot stole a Jeep in Ionia with a woman inside. She got free when they stopped for gas in Elkhart County, Ind., more than 100 miles away from the prison.
Elliot was captured in another stolen vehicle in LaPorte County on Feb. 3.
Corrections Director Dan Heyns claimed ultimate responsibility for the escape and denied budget cuts played a role. Democratic lawmakers, though, said they want to review the agency’s report and see if the legislative ombudsman reaches a similar conclusion.
“In either case, we believe there must be a discussion on how budget cuts and perimeter staffing levels impacts the safety of the people of Michigan,” said Rep. Andrew Kandrevas, D-Southgate, who sits on the House prisons budget subcommittee.
Elliot was serving time for the fatal shootings of four people 1993, when he was 20 years old. He and his accomplices were trying to steal money from a drug dealer, police said.
Elliot claims to be innocent of the killings, and a co-defendant says he pulled the trigger and Elliot played no part.
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