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Inside an Arizona prison break: ‘Catastrophic’ security failures

Posted: 9:45 PM, Feb 04, 2022
Updated: 2022-02-07 20:00:55-05
Charpiot and Harmon

FLORENCE, AZ — "Catastrophic" security failures are exposed in a video created by Arizona prison officials to retrace the steps of two sex offenders who escaped Florence’s prison complex last year, according to past and present corrections staff.

John Charpiot, 50, and David Harmon, 62, escaped from Florence’s South Unit on Jan. 23, 2021. They were captured after a five-day search.

Harmon Charpiot rap sheets.jpg

A year-long ABC15 investigation found multiple security problems existed in the South Unit on the night of the escape, including unlocked gates, low staffing, unreliable security zone alarms, improperly stored tools, and missing razor wire.

Walk-through of escape

The day after the escape, Capt. Rodrick Williams, South Unit’s chief of security, narrates a videotaped walk-through of how Charpiot and Harmon got out.

Leaked video shows Florence prison security failures following inmate escape

Courtesy: Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry

“Inmates were let out for a smoke break right after shift change,” Capt. Williams said at the beginning of the 12-minute video. “The inmates snuck away from the large group.”

Williams then followed the path of the escapees past two unlocked, open gates to an area used for vocational training and maintenance work.

“Once this area was located as a point of entry, there was a homemade tool that was recovered,” Williams said. A Department of Public Safety report said the tool was a prison-made wrench. The bolts that held the fence to the gate frame were missing.

Williams notes the men went past at least five prison security cameras.

At the back of the tool room, Williams said Charpiot and Harmon knocked out the air conditioner, crawled inside, and covered the hole with a blanket to keep light from getting out and exposing their location.

“Inventory of the tool room determined that bolt cutters are removed, a crescent wrench, two screwdrivers and a pair of wire cutters,” Williams said.

Then, Charpiot and Harmon cut their way out through fences, according to the video.

“Utilizing the snips, they breached the corner of the fence,” Williams said. “They cut this portion, clearing South Unit into the open, complex lot.”

‘Catastrophic’ security lapses

The videotaped walk-through was leaked to ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius during a year-long effort seeking answers about what went wrong at Florence’s South Unit and how to prevent such failures from happening again.

ABC15 showed the walk-through video to a former Arizona prison associate deputy warden, Shaun Holland.

“This is beyond a catastrophic failure,” he said.

Holland was a whistleblower two years ago. He helped expose cell doors that didn't lock and inmate fires at Lewis Prison in Buckeye. He was later terminated from ADCRR.

RELATED: ABC15's 'Unlocked and Unsafe' investigation

Unlike those earlier prison security problems, the Florence prison escape created a danger for the public living nearby.

“It’s very, very scary,” Holland said. “At any point, with systems like this - insecurity like this, someone can escape and show up at your house.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry denied ABC15’s public records request for video and pictures relating to the escape investigation, citing security concerns. Written ADCRR escape investigative reports were released, but dozens of pages were entirely blacked out.

Through multiple public requests to ADCRR and DPS, ABC15 did obtain the police investigation of the escape, some crime scene photos, ADCRR employee disciplinary records, security device repair reports, staffing reports, and prison officials’ emails relating to the escape.

ABC15 reviewed approximately 2,000 pages of documents about the escape.

The review found Charpiot and Harmon walked away from that smoke break at 6:04 p.m. A control room log showed two electronic zone security alarms went off, one at 6:17 p.m., the other at 7:01 p.m. When those areas were checked, staff gave the all-clear. Investigators later determined the escapees left the prison grounds around 7:00 p.m. Nobody realized the inmates were missing until a routine 8:30 p.m. headcount.

“I think that they had that part planned out pretty well,” said a current corrections employee familiar with the South Unit. ABC15 agreed to withhold the employee’s name because past ADCRR whistleblowers faced retribution.

When questioned by investigators, correctional officers who staffed the dorms, tower, and video camera monitors all said they never saw Charpiot or Harmon out of place.

“It was a systematic failure of multiple devices that should have been in place that were not,” the employee said in an interview with ABC15.

Holland pointed out missing razor wire and unlocked gates. He said tools should have been kept in separate locked cages.

“It's almost like they gave them an invitation,” Holland said. “They're like, ‘Hey, come on. Pick your weapon.’”

The DPS investigation noted Charpiot and Harmon went through 10 fences on their way out of the prison.

“How the hell did they go through 10 - 10 fences?” Holland asked. “It should literally be impossible. Somebody should be arrested for that. Absolutely arrested. That's beyond negligence. That's criminal negligence.”

Retirements and arrests

According to ADCRR staff and public records, no correctional officers were fired for failing to thwart the escape.

In the months afterward, one corrections supervisor received written reprimand. Capt. Rodrick Williams and Deputy Warden Shannon Thielman were allowed to retire.

“It's pretty embarrassing to see this happen,” the unnamed prison employee told ABC15. “It makes the people of the State of Arizona, the taxpayers, feel like we're unable to do our job.”

Follow the escapees’ route from prison break to capture in the map below.

Charpiot and Harmon were able to cover a couple of miles in the first hour of their escape. According to DPS’s investigation, the duo went inside the lobby of the GreenTree Inn & Suites in Florence and tried to steal the hotel van from the clerk just before 8 p.m.. They were unsuccessful.

A K-9 team followed the trail of dropped inmate items through a canal next to the hotel, an open desert area, to a group of homes on Adamsville Road. That is where the trail went cold.

Search teams went to every house and outbuilding in Florence, and they followed tips for five days.

After the fugitives were accused of trying to steal a car from a rural farmhouse, Coolidge Police and deputy U.S. marshals arrested them in a cotton field on January 28.

"They were just filthy,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Jake Pool told ABC15 last month. “You can tell that they were living outside.”

The officers tasered and handcuffed Charpiot and Harmon, then they radioed in the arrest.

“The gig was up, and they were going back to prison,” Pool said.

Charpiot and Harmon were moved from the medium-security South Unit to a maximum-security prison facility after their capture. They are awaiting trial on multiple charges related to the escape.

Security and staffing

ADCRR officials denied ABC15’s repeated requests for an interview about the escape and security improvements in the last year.

In December, the department announced "systemwide" improvements in an emailed press release:

  • Enhanced physical security including additional fences reinforced gates, and detection systems
  • Enhanced storage system requirements
  • Annual inspections by the ADCRR inspector general for security policy compliance

Public records note South Unit added razor wire, fixed gates, and removed tools until they could be put in cages.

Nighttime smoke breaks for inmates also ended and the open gates were locked, according to the employee who spoke to ABC15.

A staff roster from the night of the escape shows positions left vacant, below minimum staffing levels for the South Unit.

Just 11 correctional officers were on duty for the 12-hour night shift, according to the roster.

The ADCRR employee, who spoke to ABC15, said staff levels are no better now.

“There [are] nights that I've seen them come in with five or six people,” he said.

The employee explained how correctional officers manage.

“There's times you have to just lock the doors and do a walk in one building and then go back-and-forth,” he said. “That's just the way it is until, until something changes.”

Corrections Director David Shinn needs to know “in order to have security, you have to have staff,” he said.

Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com. Stay informed on all Melissa's stories by following her on Twitter and Facebook.