PANAMA CITY BEACH – With two convicted killers back in police custody, authorities have shifted attention to finding out who made the phony court documents that led to the mistaken inmate releases that rocked Florida’s judicial system.
Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, were captured Saturday night without incident at the Coconut Grove Motor Inn in Panama City Beach, a touristy area of putt-putt courses and go-kart tracks. Hours earlier, their families had held a news conference in Orlando – some 300 miles away – urging them to surrender.
“Now that we have them in custody, we’re hoping to get something from the interviews with them,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said. “We seized printers from the prisons, now we’re going to be able to throw a lot of resources at this part of the investigation. We’re already working it.”
A woman who answered the phone at the motel said she saw police coming and they went into room 227. After authorities left, the parking lot of the two-story motel next to Big Willy’s Swimwear was mostly empty. Authorities think the men had been in the area since Wednesday.
Jenkins and Walker were both serving life sentences at the Franklin Correctional Facility in the Panhandle before they walked free without anyone realizing the paperwork, complete with case numbers and a judge’s forged signature, was bogus. The documents seemingly reduced their life sentences to 15 years.
Jenkins was released first on Sept. 27. His uncle and father figure, Henry Pearson, said when prison officials called him in Orlando he jumped in the car with fresh clothes for Jenkins and picked him up from prison.
He drove him to see his mother and grandmother. Jenkins hung around Pearson’s home for some days and registered as a felon Sept. 30 at an Orlando jail, as he was required by law. He filled out paperwork, had his photograph taken and his fingerprints were checked against a database to make sure he didn’t have any outstanding warrants for his arrest.
The Orange County jail official who interacted with him had no idea he was supposed to be locked up, Sheriff Jerry Demings said.
Pearson planned a birthday party for Jenkins on Oct. 1, but he didn’t show. Pearson thought little of it because Jenkins had friends in the area, and after all, he had been locked up since the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man.
About a week later, on Oct. 8, Walker was let out of the same prison when similar legitimate-looking documents duped prison officials. His mother, Lillie Danzy, said the family thought their prayers had been answered when she got a call saying her son was being released. She called prison officials back to make sure it was actually happening.
There wasn’t time to pick him up, so prison officials took him to a bus station, gave him a ticket – as they would any other ex-inmate – and sent him along.
Walker had been in prison since his conviction of second-degree murder in the 1999 Orange County slaying of 23-year-old Cedric Slater. Like Jenkins, he registered at the Orange County jail three days after his release without raising any alarms.
He knocked around town and went to church last Sunday. But at some point, he and Jenkins went underground.
On Tuesday, one of Pugh’s relatives contacted the state attorney’s office to let them know Jenkins had been let out. Pugh’s family had been notified by mail, which is typical for families of violent crime victims.
Prosecutors reviewed Jenkins’ case file and quickly discovered the forged paperwork, including motions from prosecutors to correct “illegal” sentences, accompanied by orders allegedly filed by Judge Belvin Perry within the last couple of months. The orders granted a 15-year sentence.
They soon discovered Walker’s paperwork also was falsified, and a manhunt was launched for both men.
At this point, Jenkins had been free for more than two weeks. Walker had been out for a week. Had Pugh’s family not contacted prosecutors, it’s not clear how long they may have been out unnoticed.
For the past four days, authorities believe the men were in the Panama City area, said Frank Chiumento, a chief inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service.
Bailey said authorities were able to track down the men through interviews with people who visited them at the prison, called them there or made deposits into their canteen account. Those people included relatives, ex-girlfriends and others, he said.
“The key piece of this was an individual or individuals that had made deposits into their canteen accounts at the prison,” Bailey said.
The men weren’t planning on staying in Panama City Beach very long, he said. Someone from Atlanta was coming to pick them up and take them somewhere else, Bailey said.
In light of the falsified documents, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and prison officials will now verify with judges – not just court clerks – before releasing prisoners early.
Pearson said he was shocked to learn earlier this week that his nephew was not supposed to be out of prison. He said it took him a day or two to process events.
On Saturday night, he heard about the captures while watching TV. Soon after, a law enforcement agent called his home unexpectedly and let Jenkins talk to his wife.
“He just said that he was OK and that he loved us,” Pearson said. “We have a great sense of relief because we did not know how this would end up.”