Weatherford Police direct cars away from schools as they tell parents the schools were on lock down Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 24, 2013, in Weatherford, Okla. The schools were on lockdown because eight inmates being transported by a private prison company escaped in their transport van. (AP Photo/Weatherford, Daily News)
WEATHERFORD, Okla. (AP) — Guards shuttling inmates wearing street clothes inexplicably left eight of them alone in their transport van — with the keys — frustrating a local police chief called out to round up the prisoners after the vehicle vanished.
Six of the inmates were quickly back in police custody Tuesday afternoon. Two inmates accused of breaking out of the van's locked compartment and driving it a short distance before fleeing on foot were captured about 6 p.m.
Lester Burns and Michael Coleman were taken into custody in Weatherford, according to Assistant Police Chief Louis Flowers.
"Somebody called in on them. They saw them in the backyard of a residence," Flowers said, who added that the men were found virtually across the street from where they had left the van.
The two were arrested by Custer County deputies who were assisting in the search. There were no injuries, Flowers said.
The guards, employed by Prisoner Transportation Services of Nashville, Tenn., had stopped in Weatherford to take one or two inmates to a hospital when the prisoners fell ill.
Flowers said the guards left the inmates alone in a locked compartment in the van.
"Two of the prisoners kicked the partition out and were able to gain access to the front of the van. ... The keys were still in the van as far as we know, and it was still running," Flowers said.
The inmates were from jails in the western and northern United States and were being transported among agencies in the same regions of the country. Weatherford is about an hour west of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40.
Coleman was being held for assault and Burns for failure to pay child support, according to Flowers. He said he did not know what state or states the men were originally being held.
Ken Wood, a co-owner of the transport service, acknowledged it was moving the prisoners but said he could not comment further because the investigation is ongoing.
According to Police Chief Byron Cox, the van traveled about a mile before stopping. Two inmates ran away while the other six stayed nearby. Dogs and helicopters were summoned to help search for Coleman and Burns.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman Betsy Randolph said officers recovered a 12-gauge shotgun that had been inside the vehicle. No injuries were reported.
Critics of private prison transportation companies have complained that they are poorly regulated.
Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford was locked down for about two hours while police searched for the two inmates. The school lifted the lock down just before 4 p.m., KOKH television reported.