Prison escapee Douglas Alward blames seventh escape on incompetent guards

10:32 PM, Nov 22, 2010   |    comments
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"The real issue is the laziness of Sterling staff," Alward, 48, said. "Without their lack of care, none of this would have been possible."

9Wants to Know interviewed Alward in a series of phone conversations and letters he sent since he escaped and was caught again.

Colorado Department of Corrections Director Ari Zavaras disagrees with Alward and says prison staff members were doing their jobs. However, he changed prison policies across the state after Alward's most recent escape highlighted deficiencies.

"We are dead set on taking steps to ensure something like this won't happen again," Zavaras said.

The seventh escape

Alward spoke at length with the 9Wants to Know investigators about his Aug. 22 escape.

"Nine years ago when I arrived at Sterling, none of what I did would have been possible. Within the last three years or so, anyone could have done this," Alward said in a phone interview with 9Wants to Know.

Alward planned his escape for two years, working nearly every day to gather materials to carry out his plot.

As an inmate maintenance worker, he was permitted to work unsupervised performing routine plumbing repairs throughout his unit.

He removed copper piping from the ventilation system to build a ladder, took shipping boxes from the canteen, found some discarded shower curtains lying around, and hid the supplies in a wall behind a toilet and above an access panel in the ceiling of his cell.

After correction officers' nightly rounds ended at 9:20 p.m. on a windy Aug. 22, Alward made his move.

He knew debris would be blowing across the prison yard and into the fences and believed that would make it tougher for corrections officers to know he was escaping.

Getting through his cell window was simple because of maintenance work he had already performed on it.

Alward told 9NEWS that the previous year, all the windows on the east side of Sterling had been riveted shut.

"I had done all of unit 22's and placed altered rivets in my window so it appeared secure, but still opened," he said.

Once outside, Alward used his makeshift ladder to get over the first razor wire fence.

"The ladder was made out of 6-foot sections of copper pipe, with smaller pipes and vacuum extensions for rungs, and sheets and dry-wall mesh tape to hold it all together," Alward said.

He ran into a snag when he made it to the top of the first perimeter fence: the ladder broke.

"I had one leg and foot over the wire but my other leg and foot got caught in the razor wire. There's a good reason for calling it razor wire," Alward said.

Alward untangled himself and managed to get to the middle fence, which is the lethal electric fence.

"The only thing keeping potential escapees inside the fence is ignorant fear of electricity," he said.

Using cardboard and a plastic shower curtain, Alward made a device which he attached to the wire.

"I built an insulator to protect myself from the conductor," Alward said. "It's the same thing as when you grab a cord to unplug your house. You're protected from the conductor by the insulator, and that's exactly what I did."

The final fence was topped with barbed wire, not razor wife. Alward scaled the fence and went over.

Alward says the entire escape took less than 40 seconds.

After monitoring the movements of the perimeter patrol vehicles for three months, Alward's assumption that he wouldn't encounter any correctional officers proved to be right.

By 9:55 p.m., he was out of the prison and hiding in a nearby cornfield.

A search team captured Alward three days later outside the home of Elizabeth Reynolds near Yuma. He took her hostage, but she was not injured.

Officials located Alward after Reynolds' family became concerned when she could not be contacted.

"If I had waited outside in that cornfield for another day, things would have turned out different. I got impatient and went inside that house before I should have," he said.

Previous escapes

Alward has plenty of previous experience with escaping and being captured.

9Wants to Know reviewed his life history, summed up in hundreds of pages of prison records from five states and discovered Alward had escaped six times before.

His problems with the law started after his mother committed suicide in 1974 when he was 12 years old.

"I didn't have a very good family life," Alward said. "I never got along with my dad."

Alward grew up in Widefield, a suburb of Colorado Springs in unincorporated El Paso County.

In 1976, he was sent to a child treatment center in Pueblo after he set his school on fire.

"He dropped a giant fireball right here," James Drew, the Widefield School District communication director told 9Wants to Know, pointing to a place in the school's hallway.

"He wanted to burn the school down and wasn't successful," Drew said. "He seemed to have a lot of issues here at Watson Junior High School with discipline."

Alward ran away from the child treatment center. He was caught, returned and served an unknown amount of time before being released.

Within a year, he stole a car and drove to Durango.

The car broke down near a cabin his aunt owned. Alward broke into the home of Ed Scown and slept in his house while he and his wife slept.

Scown didn't realize someone was in his home until he and his wife woke up and saw Alward's jacket.

Scown confronted Alward in an attempt to get him to leave. Alward stabbed Scown, severely injuring him.

"He had a hunting knife in the palm of his hand and he got me," Scown said.

Alward also stabbed Scown's wife, causing one of her lungs to collapse.

"When he started to move, I shot him," Scown said.

Alward took off running. Scown's wife drove them both to the hospital.

"She could hear one of her wounds bubbling and she was pushing back against the car seat to try to stop it from bleeding," he said. "She drove us 12 miles to Mercy Hospital."

Both survived.

The La Plata County Sheriff found Alward hiding in 20-degree weather in his aunt's cabin, which had no heat.

"We ran in hoping to surprise him as best we could. Sure enough, I found him in the bed," said Sheriff Duke Schirard, who was an investigator at the time.

Alward was convicted of attempted murder, but escaped while getting treatment at Denver General Hospital for the gunshot wound.

Schirard says Alward was chained to the hospital bed and used the mechanical bed to snap the chain and break free.

Alward ran to Florida where he was arrested again and escaped from the Manatee, Florida County Jail in 1979.

When caught, the Colorado Department of Corrections placed him in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility in 1980. Staff members labeled him "very high escape risk," according to records reviewed by 9Wants to Know.

Within months, Alward said he broke through the prison gates with two other inmates in a stolen bus.

"We had access to some vehicles. We weren't supposed to but we did. I busted down the back two gates with a school bus," he said. "The guys were supposed to come behind me in a car, but they didn't so I went and jumped in the river."

Alward was captured floating down the Arkansas River in an inner tube about 30 minutes later.

By 1985, Alward was doing time at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City.

Renovations at the prison allowed him to disappear into the prison walls.

"They were rebuilding the inside of cell house one and cell house seven," he said. "I hid inside the auditorium up above the kitchen for about two days until they called the search off."

"Then I broke a hole through the wall that separated the kitchen from the cell house," Alward told 9NEWS. "I went from inside the cell house, which was basically just big empty buildings, and got a couple boards and leaned them up against the wall. I climbed up and went over."

He had stolen a Department of Transportation dump truck and headed to California where he withdrew $5,000 from an account left to him by his grandmother who died in 1981.

From there he went to Seattle, and claims he was mugged and lost all his money.

While working in Yakima, Washington, he committed burglaries and a robbery but was never caught, according to a presentence report.

Traveling to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico he stole a car and was ultimately arrested after holding up a coffee shop in Tucson, Arizona in October 1985.

Alward spent six years in an Arizona prison before being brought to the Freemont County Jail for a court hearing on his 1985 escape.

Alward and another prisoner overpowered a guard who was taking the two inmates to review legal materials at the county law library.

Policy at the time required inmates to have one free hand to look at legal materials. One guard escorted the two inmates.

The officer had already released one of the inmate's hands and was beginning to take the second inmate's hand out of handcuffs when the escape happened, said Freemont County Sheriff Jim Beicker, who was a deputy at the time and the first person on scene.

"When the officer began to take off the second inmate's restraints, the officer's attention was distracted from the first. That inmate grabbed him," Beicker said.

The two men stole the guard's gun.

Alward tells the story differently. He says the guard allowed each inmate to have both hands free. He also says the guard's gun was too big for his holster and that made it easy for the inmates to grab his gun.

Alward walked out of the county courthouse and headed to Idaho.

"This cop tried to pull me over one night and I took off on him. I bailed out of the car and ran. He started chasing me in his car. I fired four rounds at his car and I got away," Alward said.

The next day, Alward was at an upholstery shop hiding out when an employee came into the store.

"It was on a Sunday. I just assumed no one was going to be there," Alward said.

Alward forced the employee to drive him across the border to Oregon where he was captured the next day.

Alward was returned to the Arizona Department of Corrections to finish serving time.

In 2001, he was transferred to the Colorado Department of Corrections' newest prison in Sterling, where he spent nine years before making his most recent escape.

Prison changes

Alward is now in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. He is currently being held at the state's highest security level, known as administrative segregation.

"He's in lockdown 23 hours a day. Whenever he is out of his cell, he is completely shackled, hands and feet. He has two staff members with him every time he's out of the cell," Zavaras said.

"It's been an eye opening experience for the entire department," Zavaras said. "We think we let the public down, certainly the Sterling community, certainly every Colorado citizen."

Since the escape, Zavaras has ordered more razor wire installed around the fences. He also ordered some inmates removed from low-security classifications and has also implemented new prison search policies statewide.

He believes the new search policies will catch any inmate trying to hide materials in cells.

Inmates who pose the highest risk of escape will not be allowed to be classified in the lowest security levels, like Alward had been.

In September, while in administrative segregation, Alward was able to mail a letter to 9Wants to Know without prison staff properly reviewing the letter.

Zavaras says he has addressed that issue with prison staff.

He says no prison staff has lost their job because of Alward's escape.

"We've learned from this situation and at the end of the day we are going to be a lot better agency as a result," Zavaras said.

"I would say it's highly unlikely that he will ever be in a position where he will be able to do this again," Zavaras said.

 

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