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Conn. inmate scales razor-wire fence, escapes in pizza delivery car

Luis Clarke, 25, was caught when he tried to get into an Uber car he ordered through the delivery driver’s phone


Pictured is Luis Clarke.


By Nicholas Rondinone
The Hartford Courant

CHESHIRE, Conn. — Upset about a breakup with his girlfriend, officials say Luis Clarke scaled a razor-wire fence at Cheshire Correctional Institution Wednesday night before stealing a pizza delivery car nearby in a brazen hourslong escape.

A fugitive investigations team tracked Clarke, who suffered multiple cuts from the fence, to Meriden about three hours after the escape, when he tried to get into an Uber car he ordered through the delivery driver’s phone, Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple said.

“I was extremely concerned with the timing of this [escape] being Halloween, there were a lot of children out and things of that nature,” Semple said.

Wednesday’s escape sparked a probe into security at the facility and one legislator said he intends to meet with the warden to discuss what happened. Town officials said the escape has reminded residents to make sure they are signed up for Cheshire’s emergency notification service.

On Thursday, Clarke, a 25-year-old Wallingford man with tattoos across his face and neck, appeared before a Superior Court judge in Meriden on charges of larceny and escape. Bail was set at $100,000 and the case was continued to Nov. 30. His new charges could add years to his sentence.

A low-level offender, Clarke had been sentenced in July, said Karen Martucci, a prison spokeswoman. He was placed in a minimum-security housing unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, known as the annex, which houses less serious offenders in a lower-security environment.

“This is a separate building that is not even located on the main campus of the Cheshire compound,” Semple said. “This is the lowest level of security and oversight we have in terms of what the agency does in its mission.”

Clarke was approved and assigned to work outside the prison.

“At one point in time he was working out in the community,” Semple said.

He said while he believed “the appropriate amount of security” for Clarke was “in place, certainly there is some vulnerability.”

“Because someone was able to scale the fence, there is an issue with the security,” Semple said. “… we are always going to the drawing board to look at what we can do to meet our public safety obligations.”

DOC officials were reviewing whether Clarke should be placed on high-security status at the Northern Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Somers, officials said.

On Wednesday, Clarke hid during an outdoor recreational break between 5 and 6 p.m., state police said. When corrections officers did the 6:15 p.m. head count, Clarke was nowhere to be found and officials locked down the prison.

As is protocol, Semple said an additional count was done and then a more comprehensive review. Within 20 minutes of confirming the inmate’s escape, Semple said outside agencies, including local and state police, were notified.

Outside the prison annex, authorities found a blood-stained sweatshirt near the fence. A picnic table had been upended near where Clarke climbed over the fence, state police said.

Authorities later learned that Clarke stole a car from a pizza delivery driver at a shopping plaza less than a mile south of the prison, state police said. Along with his keys, the delivery driver had left his phone in the car, which police later tracked.

Clarke ditched the stolen car at Cheshire Academy and got a ride to a home in Meriden, where he was cornered by state police at about 9:20 p.m.

Semple said that Clarke was upset about a recent split with a girlfriend and had been confiding in a fellow inmate.

“He made a decision to conceal himself when they were coming back in from recreation and somehow get up the fence line,” Semple said.

DOC plans to conduct a review of Clarke’s escape. Semple said Thursday it was too early to say where the breakdown may have been that allowed Clarke to get out. He said there could be some level of human failure in what transpired.

“We will find out what’s going on and we will respond appropriately,” Semple said.

Semple did commend the parole officers assigned to track fugitives for their response and speed in getting Clarke back into custody working with other law enforcement.

News of the escape, first shared by the Cheshire police, then the state police and by the Department of Correction, quickly spread across social media as concerned residents and parents shared it amid a busy night of Halloween festivities.

Rep. Craig Fishbien, R-Wallingford, who represents the portion of Cheshire around the prison, was among those sharing the news of the escape on town-focused Facebook forums.

“I have friends that live right down the street from there. I was concerned for their safety and well-being. … It’s a very scary situation,” Fishbein said.

Online, people had expressed concerns about the escape including fears about a convict out in the community on Halloween.

“Certainly anytime something like this happens, people are in their right to be scared and I credit law enforcement for getting the individual in three hours. But God only knows what could’ve happened in that three-hour time,” Fishbein said.

Town officials said they made efforts to quickly inform residents about the escape.

“Alerts went out in minutes,” Sean Kimball, the town manager, said. He urged residents to check and update their subscription to the town’s code red emergency notification system, which sends a call out to residents in incidents like the escape Wednesday.

Kimball said he was meeting with town staff Wednesday to assess the alert system and recommend improvements, if necessary. He plans to meet with DOC officials to review what happened with the escape.

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, whose district includes parts of Cheshire, said Thursday that he plans to meet with the warden and visit the facility.

“I am concerned about the security of the prison and the safety of the community.”

Wednesday’s escape was the second from a state prison this year.

Jerry Mercado, a Hartford man serving a three-year sentence for burglary, escaped from the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield on Jan. 5 by clinging to the bottom of a state vehicle that was not inspected by guards.

Mercado was captured 10 days later in Georgia. A judge recently sentenced him to four more years for the escape.

“Am I disappointed there were two escapes in 2018? I am more frustrated,” Semple said Thursday. “In the Mercado case, I believe it was avoidable. This case is a little more unique, but there certainly are some similarities.”

Both men were about to be released back into the community, they were young men and they had issues in their private lives, Semple said.

At the time of Mercado’s escape, Department of Correction officials said they were launching a comprehensive review of security at all facilities. Semple said they have done audits of all the facilities and before Wednesday’s escape there were no known security issues at the Cheshire facility.

Despite commitments to review and address security issues, union officials said corrections officer posts and man hours remain decreased in prisons including Cheshire.

“Unfortunately our agency has made the determination to cut posts and remove staff from the facility and we definitely feel that that is something that’s a precursor to these things happening,” said Rudy Demiraj, a correction employee who is president of AFSCME Local 387, which represents Cheshire Correctional Institution employees. “The less eyes and ears you have on the ground, the more likely that something like this happens and that’s what we are seeing right now.”

Demiraj said he and the other heads of the local unions that represent corrections employees have taken their concerns all the way up to the governor’s office, but he said officials have not been receptive.

Semple said staffing shortages are not to blame, noting that the annex building has seen a steady number of officers for at least 15 years.