ORLANDO, Fla. — Within days of strolling out of prison without a hitch, two convicted killers freed by bogus paperwork went to a jail about 300 miles away and registered as felons, records showed. They were even fingerprinted, photographed and filled out paperwork to apparently keep up the ruse.
Authorities are now searching for Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who were mistakenly freed from a Panhandle prison within the last month. Both men were serving life in prison but were let go when authorities said forged documents duped the Corrections Department and court system and reduced their sentences to 15 years.
"We're looking at the system's breakdown, I'm not standing here to point the finger at anyone at this time," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men. He said he believed they were still in the central Florida area.
The release led prosecutors and prison officials to review their records to make sure no one else had been mistakenly freed. The corrections agency also changed its policy to require officials to verify all early releases with judges.
"There's reason to suspect that these aren't the first occasions," Demings said.
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail in Orlando on Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered there three days later.
Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
"There would have been nothing to give the individuals that were registering them a clue that something was amiss," Demings said.
By registering, Jenkins and Walker likely drew less attention to themselves. Otherwise, a warrant would have been initiated for their arrests.
"If they had failed to register, that certainly would have cued an inquiry for our department or from law enforcement. If they were part of the scheme, that's something they didn't want to occur," said Demings, who raised the possibility that someone other than the prisoners initiated the plot.
The sheriff said there had been some sightings of the men, and "most" of their families were cooperating, but he didn't go into specifics about either detail. Police were offering a $5,000 reward for help and billboards were going up in the area.
Authorities learned about the mistaken release when one of the murder victim's family notified the state attorney's office. Victims' families are automatically notified when a felon is released, and Demings said a victim's family was notified by mail.
It is not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor's office and judge.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.
"It's very troubling to me that something like this could happen," Demings said. "Two murderers have been erroneously released from prison. It doesn't get any worse than that to me."
Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention, including that's it uncommon for a request for sentence reduction to come from prosecutors.
The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County Clerk of Court's website and calling them.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges — and not just court clerks — before releasing prisoners early.