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Changes being made to prevent court escapes
A “very unusual set of circumstances” led to a prisoner escaping from the Municipal Court building last month, city officials told reporters at a press conference Friday.
On Jan. 22, while in handcuffs, shackles and wearing a red jail jumpsuit, 28-year-old inmate Raul Dominguez escaped from a secure area of the Municipal Court building, where he had been arraigned on five counts of criminal trespass and one count of theft and trespassing. He was one of 10 prisoners brought to Municipal Court that day.
City spokesman Dave Nash and Municipal Court administrator Angela Grady explained Friday that Dominguez had apparently hidden under the van used to transport prisoners from the county jail to Municipal Court while it was parked in a secured area of the courthouse.
When officers realized one of the inmates was missing, one of the two Municipal Court officers assisting with the transport backtracked to look for him. The second officer secured the remaining nine prisoners, but then also stepped away from the van.
When that happened, they said, Dominguez crawled out from under the van and fled the secured area through a fire escape door. The door was equipped with a push bar for fire safety purposes and designed to open only after a time delay. However, the door was not functioning correctly, which is what allowed Dominguez to get out of the security area unnoticed.
“While this type of incident is extraordinarily rare at the Yuma Municipal Court, it is the type of incident we can and must make sure never happens again,” said presiding Municipal Court Judge Douglas Stanley. “I thank God that nobody was seriously injured, or worse, in this event. We have put measures in place to address some of the factors that may have facilitated this escape and are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of this community.”
Nash said two investigations into the escape are ongoing: a criminal probe by the Yuma Police Department and an internal administrative investigation by the city of Yuma.
Grady added that at the direction of Judge Stanley, the court already has made several procedural changes intended to prevent another such escape from happening. There has not been an escape from the current Municipal Court building since it was constructed 14 years ago, back in 1999.
“The escape that occurred from Municipal Court on Jan. 22 is one that the judges, officers and staff of this court take very seriously,” Grady said. “We assure you that there has been, and continues to be, an exhaustive administrative review of the policies and procedures in place.”
In addition to repairing the door — which had been broken for at least six months — Grady said Municipal Court officers will no longer be allowed to transport more than five prisoners at a time.
Other changes already made include:
• Municipal Court officers will no longer transport prisoners between the jail and Municipal Court if they have a felony pending, have resisted arrest or have an immigration hold.
• Municipal Court officers have new procedures to follow regarding the number of prisoners who can be placed in the elevator at any one time.
• The court is working on a comprehensive review and update of policies and procedures concerning transportation of prisoners to and from the jail and security in the courtrooms.
Judge Stanley also asked City Administrator Greg Wilkinson to furnish additional personnel to help with paperwork processing, in order to allow more prisoners to appear via audio-video feed for their court hearings.
Yuma Municipal Court shares the audio-video connection with other municipalities in the county. The combination of having to sign off for Wellton and Somerton and a full schedule of trials scheduled in the afternoon on the day of the escape contributed to the decision to transport 10 prisoners from the jail to appear in Municipal Court.
Grady said Municipal Court is currently waiting for the results of the administrative investigation regarding the escape and are prepared to take any correctional actions it deems necessary. That completed report could be presented to Judge Stanley within the next week.
Sgt. Leanne Worthen of YPD was also at Friday's press conference and spoke with reporters about the criminal investigation into Dominguez's escape. She said that once captured, he faces additional charges of escape, theft of means of transportation, aggravated assault and armed robbery.
Worthen said Yuma police have received two reports of possible sightings of Dominguez in Mexico since his escape: one in Algodones and the other in San Luis. She said that warrants have already been issued for Dominguez's arrest so “if he is contacted in the future by law enforcement in some capacity, those warrants are in place for immediate arrest.”
Dominguez also faces felony charges of burglary and theft pending in Yuma County Superior Court. That warrant carries a $250,000 bond, while the warrant on the set of charges stemming from the escape has a $1 million bond.
At about 12:10 p.m. the day of the escape officers were dispatched to the area of 350 W. 16th St. for a report of a man, who was later identified as Dominguez, wearing a prisoner uniform and leg shackles running in the area. The man later fled that area in a white 2002 Mazda minivan he had carjacked.
Although originally wearing a red prisoner uniform and leg shackles, Dominguez changed his clothing to a white T-shirt and tan pants.
At about 2 p.m., the minivan was found at County 9th St. and the levee road by U.S. Border Patrol, and Dominguez was spotted making his way toward Mexico on foot.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.