James Douglas Mitchell saw a way out of prison in the front of the transport van.

It was hot morning for May in Minnesota, with temperatures rising toward the low 80s. Mitchell and eight other inmates were on their way from Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud to other prisons across the state. The driver, Sgt. Joseph Strunk, stopped at Lino Lakes prison, where some would be dropped off, and the inmates watched Strunk exit the van and disappear into a dark garage.

Anthony Alexander, an inmate in the van, said that Mitchell fixated on an opportunity to escape.

“Man, I can’t believe this,” he recalled Mitchell saying, motioning to the ignition. “Man left his keys in there!”

Mitchell had been complaining about the 12 years he faced in prison for assault. “This is my chance to get away,” he said, according to Alexander.

“This is your chance to get away, but you’ve got us in here!” pleaded Alexander, a 52-year-old serving a 28-month stint for assault, scheduled to be released next fall.

But Mitchell, 26, slid open the unlocked cab window that separated the prisoners from the driver’s seat. He dove inside and hit the gas — setting into motion the largest prison escape in Minnesota’s recent history, and a manhunt that would span six hours and multiple cities, shutting down a north Minneapolis neighborhood in the process.

On Monday, Mitchell was charged with escaping from custody and four counts of kidnapping, all felonies. If convicted, he faces a potentially long prison sentence; the charges combined carry a maximum sentence of 85 years.

Interviews with several inmates who were present and the criminal charges filed this week show how Mitchell was able to escape — and why multiple prisoners say they feared for their lives.

In a statement to investigators, Strunk, the driver of the van, said he had left the van running because it was hot and he didn’t want the passengers to overheat. The Department of Corrections is still investigating the incident, but spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said it’s not against policy to leave a vehicle running, “and is often necessary due to weather conditions such as heat or cold.” She said the department is now installing automatic safeguards into transport vehicles that will shut off the vehicle if an attempt is made to drive them.

She said Strunk was not fired but no longer works for the department.

'That looks like an escape'

Trawets Thomas said he saw the whole thing.

He was in a separate transport van, this one pulling a trailer, with two other inmates. When Strunk walked into the garage, the sergeant driving the van with Thomas in it stepped out to make a phone call. Suddenly he saw a man wearing blue-and-white prison garb driving the other van, and he was speeding right for them.

“I thought he was going to hit us,” said Thomas. At the last moment, the speeding van turned sharply and hit the curb. “I was like, ‘that looks like an escape.’ ”

Thomas’s driver called Strunk and told him the van just took off, said Thomas. “The dude came out and he was like ‘oh no no no no no!’ They got out and talked and you could see the panic on his face.”

Thomas’s driver jumped back in the van and, with the three inmates and an equipment trailer still in tow, began chasing the hijacked van, eventually ending up in the parking lot of Rosedale Mall, said Thomas.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had reached Mounds View, and the other inmates were trying to find a way out of the van. The handcuff key was on the keychain, and Mitchell passed it back so they could unlock their cuffs and shackles, said Alexander.

They begged Mitchell to let them out, screaming “please stop, don’t kill us,” according to the complaint.

When Mitchell slowed down at a stop light, one of the inmates climbed through the cab window and opened the door, allowing Alexander to jump out.

“I just said, who all want to get out with me?” said Alexander. “ ‘Just come on and leave, man, so you don’t get no extra charge.’ ”

Four of them joined him and the rest stayed in the van as it sped toward Minneapolis.

Still wearing prison uniforms, the five inmates started knocking on doors in suburban Mounds View, pleading for residents to lend them their phones. They eventually came across a woman getting into her a car, who said she was a local chaplain. “I’m a Godly man, so I asked her, ‘can I dial 911?’,” said Alexander.

With the prisoners in her home, the chaplain called police. “There’s five different young men here at our place,” she told them. “They said that they are afraid of riding with someone in a van, and they’re from the prison.”

“Hold on, where are you?” responded the startled operator. “You said there’s who there?”

“Just a minute,” she told the operator, pausing to scold the inmates for talking loudly in the background. “Both of you stop talking!”

Manhunt in north Minneapolis

The police arrived and took the men into custody. Mitchell made it to north Minneapolis, where he ditched the van near the corner of Thomas and 39th avenues north. Three inmates waited by the van for police to arrive. Mitchell took off on foot.

Police set up a perimeter in the neighborhood and searched with helicopters and K-9 units. They warned residents to stay inside while they scoured the area. Four hours passed and they didn’t find him.

Around 4:30 p.m., they got a break: someone reported seeing a man “stumbling” into traffic on Interstate 35W, near the University of Minnesota, according to the complaint. The State Patrol arrested Mitchell by the interstate and a bridge on SE. 8th Street.

Mitchell is incarcerated at Oak Park Heights prison, the state’s maximum-security facility. The Department of Corrections said its investigation is ongoing.

Fitzgerald, the department spokeswoman, said no inmates besides Mitchell have been disciplined or charged, though Alexander said they spent a few days in solitary confinement immediately following the incident.

“My anxiety kicked in,” said Alexander. “I ain’t know what to do. I just started shaking. It’s kind of like a frustrating scene in a movie. It was unbelievable man.”