Orange County jail escape has S. Californians on edge

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But it has had plenty of escapes.

Within five days of the jail's opening in 1968, an inmate escaped by wiggling under loose mesh wire and using a garden hose to climb from the roof, the Orange County Register reported.

Months later, two others escaped using the same unrepaired opening, the newspaper said.

In 1983, an inmate escaped by cutting through the chain-link roof cage and sliding down bedsheets, the Register reported. The fencing was reinforced.

In 1988, five inmates climbed over reinforced fencing, cut through wire and used braided sheets to rappel down the building, according to the Register. While four escaped, the fifth was caught after breaking his leg in the attempt.

A 'very sophisticated escape'

In some ways, last week's jailbreak evokes memories of one last year nearly 3,000 miles away, in upstate New York. That's where convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt used hacksaws to cut through cell walls and a steam pipe inside the Clinton Correctional Facility, then flee to freedom -- until a border patrol agent killed Matt and Sweat was recaptured.

Like that one, Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Hallock said what happened in Santa Ana was "a very sophisticated escape."

"They cut through a quarter-inch metal plate," he said. "They crawled through unsecured plumbing tunnels to the roof. They cut through steel rebar."

After that, the trio used sheets braided into ropes to rappel down four informative post to five stories, about 50 feet, he said.

There were two head counts conducted the day the three escaped, one at 5 a.m. and the second at 8 p.m., Hallock said.

"We think they escaped after the 5 a.m. head count," Hallock said. Sometime around 8 p.m. there was a fight, which authorities suspect was staged to distract and delay the second head count.

There are three other counts during a typical day where staff count bodies and compare to a paper record. The two head counts involve identifying inmates through photos.

At a Tuesday afternoon media briefing, Hallock expressed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' dismay over the incident.

"The sheriff is extremely troubled by the length of time it took to determine that the three inmates, housed in a maximum security jail, were unaccounted for," Hallock said.

The inmates were housed in an area with about 60 other inmates, Hallock said, but it's unclear whether other prisoners saw the men escape.

A retired FBI supervisory special agent said he had no doubt the fugitives had assistance.

"These guys had to have help to begin with to get out of the place," Steve Moore said. "The same people who helped them up to that point are going to help them later. And so they probably had someone waiting."