By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
A spokesman said Monday that Curry County Sheriff Matt Murray anticipates remaining in command of the jail for up to 90 days, until a new administrator can be hired.
The sheriff took over command of the jail early Sunday morning after an escape attempt by four inmates prompted resignations from Interim Administrator Carlos Ortiz and several members of his command staff.
Ortiz, two lieutenants and two captains, “Submitted their resignation from the detention center and walked off the job shortly after the attempted escape,” County Manager Lance Pyle said.
Monday two detention officers and a clerical staff member resigned as well, he said.
Undersheriff Wesley Waller said deputies and Clovis police responded just before 1 a.m. Sunday to put down a disturbance started by four out-of-control inmates who had attempted to escape.
Waller said 10 minutes later, the inmates were under control.
Following the incident, Waller said Ortiz and several members of his command staff resigned.
“The sheriff has assumed management of the facility and has assigned Lt. Keith Bessette to serve as the temporary administrator until an administrator can be appointed,” Waller said.
Pyle said Assistant County Manager Connie Harrison is overseeing personnel and budget matters for the facility.
Waller said three deputies are stationed at the facility.
Waller said the jail has resumed normal operations and in the first 24 hours the sheriff’s office has noticed, “that the overall morale between the staff and the inmates has increased substantially.”
“The transition has gone fairly smooth.”
It is the first time in recent history the sheriff’s office has taken full command of the jail, Waller said.
The sheriff’s office temporarily assisted with managing the jail in 2008 after the escape of eight inmates.
“The sheriff and I have a great working relationship and we both want to do what’s in the best interest of Curry County,” Pyle said.
Pyle noted while his office has no authority over an elected official such as the sheriff, the two will be working closely together to oversee the function of the jail.
Ortiz scheduled a meeting with the CNJ Monday but later postponed the meeting and declined comment, saying he planned to consult an attorney.
Ortiz said six members of command and other staff had resigned with him.
Waller said the investigation revealed the four inmates attempted to escape, but were, “ultimately thwarted by security measures that had been put into place following the last escape.”
When their attempt was unsuccessful, he said, they began trying to destroy property within the facility.
Detention staff were alerted to the escape attempt as it was occurring and notified law enforcement, he said.
One of the four inmates injured in the escape attempt, was treated and released back to law enforcement.
Waller said all four men — Guadalupe Urquizo, 29, Brandon Wagner, 24, Rico Sena, 22, and Michael Padilla, 26 — have been transferred to other facilities.
Waller said charges against the four are anticipated and declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
County Commissioner Caleb Chandler declined to answer questions about the incident and said by email, “The County has several applications for the position of Jail Administrator and will proceed with the plan to interview those applicants.”
Ortiz was appointed interim administrator in September after Lois Bean was fired. He is one of seven applicants applying for the position county officials previously said they hoped to fill by April.
The jail has a history of problems, most notably the August 2008 escape of eight inmates.
One escapee — 25-year-old convicted child-killer Edward Salas — remains at large.
Following the escape and based on recommendations made by a consultant, the county made numerous structural improvements to the facility and added other security measures, such as a new surveillance system.
“The safety precautions that we have made prevented an escape,” Pyle said in a written statement, adding the county has, “expended an exorbitant amount of resources and personnel toward the improvements and will continue to do so until a new detention center is constructed.”
Pyle said the county needs a new facility.
He said a new jail should be designed to house maximum and minimum security inmates.
Commission Chairman Bobby Sandoval said he is pleased improvements prevented the escape. Sandoval also said he believes it is inevitable a new facility will be needed.
“I think my personal feelings are when this jail was constructed in the 1990’s they did a very poor job. Either that, or we have a lot meaner prisoners than they did back then,” Sandoval said.
“We need to start looking at a brand new jail. We inherited these problems and these problems have been ongoing since the jail was built… Right now we’re just putting Band-Aids on the problem and we’re going to have to think long and hard about constructing a new jail for Curry County.”
Sandoval said he believes the incident can be chalked up to the growing influence of gangs in jails, contributing to a more violent, organized type of inmate being seen in facilities.
He commended detention center personnel for spotting and reporting the escape attempt in time to stop it.
“Thank God nobody was hurt and nobody escaped,” he said.
“I commend our detention officers for the excellent work that they did in containing the situation and I’d like our citizens to know that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe and we feel that they’re safe.”