ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Family members and friends of two convicted killers freed from prison with fake paperwork initially thought their release was legitimate and spent time with them, even planning a birthday party for one.
But in the weeks since Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker were let out, relatives have learned their freedom happened only because phony documents fooled prison officials. Both men had been serving life in prison, but the paperwork, complete with case numbers and a judge's forged signature, reduced their sentences to 15 years.
Jenkins was let out of the Franklin Correction Institution in the Panhandle on Sept. 27 and registered as a felon three days later at a jail in Orlando, about 300 miles from the prison.
Henry Pearson, who was described as Jenkins' father figure, said he brought Jenkins clothes when he picked him up from prison and drove him to see his mother and grandmother.
Pearson planned a birthday party at his home for Jenkins a few days later, but he never showed up. Jenkins turned 34 on Oct. 1.
At a news conference Saturday, family members of both men pleaded with them to turn themselves in.
"We love you. We believe in you. We just want you to surrender yourself to someone you trust who will bring you back here safely. We don't want any harm to come to you," said Walker's mother, Lillie Danzy.
Danzy said the family thought their prayers had been answered when she got the call saying Walker would be released Oct. 8. There wasn't time to pick him up, so he hopped a bus to his hometown.
Walker went to church last Sunday, and his mother said they have been cooperating with authorities and made no attempts to hide him.
She said her 34-year-old son is a man of faith with strong family values and she reminded him, "I know who you are, you know who you are."
Authorities believe the men may still be in the central Florida area.
Just like Jenkins, Walker registered as a felon at the jail three days after he was released. Both men signed paperwork, were fingerprinted and even photographed before walking out of the jail without raising any alarms. Had one of the murder victim's families not contacted prosecutors, authorities might not have known about the mistaken releases.
"We're looking at the system's breakdown, I'm not standing here to point the finger at anyone at this time," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men.
In light of the errors, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and state legislators promised to hold investigative hearings.
Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don't have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
By registering as the law required, the men likely drew less attention. If they hadn't, a warrant would've been put out for their arrest, the sheriff said.
It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the 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.
The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County Clerk of Court's website and calling them.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges — and not just court clerks — before releasing prisoners early.
Jenkins was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man. It was Pugh's family that contacted the prosecutor's office about Jenkins' release.
Walker was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1999 Orange County slaying of 23-year-old Cedric Slater.