ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Despite their brazen escape from a prisoner transport van last week, Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah are not criminal masterminds, police say.
“They took advantage of weaknesses,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said at a news conference Monday. “That’s what inmates do; they wait for the right time and they move. Everything lined up for them.”
The escapees’ biggest mistake was traveling north to Albuquerque instead of south to the Mexican border.
“I don’t know why these two mental giants – geniuses – decided to go back from Artesia to Albuquerque,” he said. “I’d like to thank them for that, because they ended up going to the most populated area in New Mexico.”
He said residents played a crucial role in the inmates’ capture.
“Once we put the information out, the calls did not stop coming and it really paid off for us,” he said.
Authorities released new details Monday about how they believe the inmates escaped and how the Corrections Department is internally handling the most high-profile New Mexico prison break in recent history.
Kassetas said the convicts have told police in recent interviews that they jimmied open the back door of the prisoner transport van they were in and picked open their handcuffs with a wire, slipping into the night unnoticed last week.
It’s still unclear when exactly they freed themselves from their chains – before or after they jumped out of the van – because police have not yet found the handcuffs.
Police believe they know who helped the fugitives, but it’s unclear who exactly will face criminal charges. That’s because a state law that deals with fugitives specifies that close blood relatives and spouses cannot be charged with harboring a family member, even if that family member is running from the law.
Kassetas said Cruz met up with family members, but didn’t name any suspects. They have arrested Cruz’s sister Olivia Cruz on an unrelated warrant and have said they have been speaking to at least one person of interest in the case.
Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said the two corrections officers who were driving the van that night – a man with 11 years of experience and a woman with 18 years of experience – started their day at 6 a.m.
They were at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Belen around 2 p.m. and went to the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. That’s where they picked up Cruz and Clah, who were being moved from level three security to a higher security level four.
The van made its way down to the Roswell Correctional Center, which is where Cruz and Clah were last accounted for around 8 p.m.
The van then stopped at an Allsup’s in Artesia around 8:30 p.m., and that’s where authorities believe Cruz and Clah jumped out. The corrections officers didn’t notice they’d lost two of their five passengers until they arrived in Las Cruces four hours later.
They quickly did a recount and called State Police around 1 a.m.
Just an hour later, police believe the men were already in Albuquerque in fresh clothes with no shackles. Cruz was at a hotel to visit his girlfriend, according to a woman who met both men later on.
The two corrections officers were put on leave and may face criminal charges if authorities find they helped the men somehow. Marcantel said all the state’s prisons have been on lockdown since the escape and will remain locked down until authorities interview everyone who may know something.
He also said no prisoners are being transported unless it’s an emergency.
He said there are strict policies dictating what officers are supposed to do during a transport. Though he wouldn’t discuss the specifics of those policies, he said he believes the mistake was because of human error.
Kassetas and Marcantel also pointed out that the officers were working 18-hour days and the department has been strapped for resources.
But Marcantel said that’s still no excuse.
“There will never be an excuse for not doing our jobs based on being tired,” he said. “I have said for a long time that your prison is strained and I have advocated for resources for a long time, and I will continue to. But it is also my responsibility to very intentionally look at and never accept something like this.”
Kassetas said the most important part of the investigation is complete, but he said investigators are trying to tie up the loose ends.
“Number one priority is they were arrested, they’re back in the prison system,” he said. “If you were involved, it’s better to come to us.”