Within days of strolling out of prison without a hitch, two convicted killers freed using bogus paperwork went to a jail and registered in person as felons, records showed. They were even fingerprinted 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.
The error has prompted prosecutors and prison officials to review their records to make sure no one else had been mistakenly released.
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered Oct. 11.
Felons are required to register by law. When they register, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that felons don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
The jail is about 300 miles from the prison where they were serving their sentences.
It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering their 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.
Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention of the court clerk's office or the Corrections Department. Namely, it's rare for a judge to order a sentence reduction, and even more uncommon for the request to come from prosecutors.
Sen. Greg Evers, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he spoke to Perry on Friday. He said the judge will offer a proposal in which judges review all early release documents before court clerks send them to prisons.
"They're working on some fail safe plans," said Evers, a Pensacola Republican. "If the court administrator put these plans in place throughout the state it will solve the problem."
The Corrections Department said Thursday it verified the release orders with the Orange County Clerk of Court's office. Evers said Friday he spoke with prison officials, who told him they made the verification by phone and email, but clerk's office spokeswoman Leesa Bainbridge said it has no record of receiving an email from the state agency about the cases. She didn't know if they had received a phone call.
Even if somebody from the corrections agency had called, it would be to verify if paperwork had been docketed in the clerk's office, not to authenticate documents, Bainbridge said.
"If they questioned whether it was a judge's signature, they would call the judge," Bainbridge said.
Prisoners have had varying success trying to use bogus documents to escape. Many forgeries are discovered, but there have been cases where inmates walk free.
In 2010, a Wisconsin killer forged documents that shortened his prison sentence and he walked free, only to be captured a week later. In 2012, a prisoner in Pennsylvania was let out with bogus court documents, and the mistake was only discovered months later.
Jenkins, 34, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man.
State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton said he learned Jenkins had been released when Pugh's family contacted his office. They reviewed the paperwork and found that it was a fake, then notified law enforcement.
Later, they discovered Walker's release documents were also fake. The paperwork also forged prosecutors' signatures, Ashton said.
"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," Ashton said.
Walker, 34, was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County. He told investigators that 23-year-old Cedric Slater was bullying him and he fired three shots intending to scare him.
In a statement, Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said his agency was reviewing records to make sure no other inmates had been released in a similar fashion.
Ashton said another man serving a life sentence for attempting to kill a law enforcement officer was also scheduled to be released using forged documents, but an investigator discovered the scheme before any release.
Florida legislators have called for hearings while Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he was focused on the manhunt.