Police on Thursday were looking for three men who escaped sometime during the night from a minimum security section of the Salt Lake County Jail.
Jail officers noticed the missing inmates at 6:45 a.m. when they began serving breakfast. Jail Commander Capt. Paul Cunningham said they believe the men disappeared sometime after officers did a prisoner count at 10 p.m. Wednesday.The inmates, Patrick Heaps, 20, Melvin Redmond, 21, and Clarence Hurt, 24, were being housed in office space converted into jail space because of crowding. They were confined to the ninth floor of the Metropolitan Hall of Justice, 400 S. 300 East, which is adjacent to the Metro Jail, where about 700 prisoners are housed.
About 53 prisoners can be held on the ninth floor, where the men were living. There are also 53 inmates housed on the 10th floor of the high rise, which used to be office space for sheriff's detectives and administration.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard authorized the remodeling of the two floors
which were vacant at the time, two years ago in order to provide the county with additional bed space.
Kennard has to release prisoners from the Metro Jail once it reaches capacity - just more than 700 inmates - because of a federal court order controlling crowding.
Asked if county officials regretted the decision to revamp the office space into jail space, Cunningham said those kinds of analyses were premature.
"One way of looking at it," he said, "is that they wouldn't even have been in jail if we didn't use that space. One hundred and six people wouldn't be in jail without that space."
Investigators used dogs to determine how the men got from the security section of the floor and out of the building.
Cunningham said they believe the men broke through the ceiling in the shower area, climbed through the ceiling to the west side of the building (the cells are on the east side), and then kicked out part of a wall leading to a stair well.
"I'm sure there was some planning," he said Thursday morning. "It's hard to tell how much just yet."
Two of the inmates, Redmond and Hurt, face theft charges in state court. Heaps, however, is a federal prisoner who was charged with bank robbery.
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Jim Potter said they were most worried about Heaps, the only escapee with a violent history.
Inmates housed on the ninth and 10th floors are usually those who are deemed minimum security. They're usually not violent inmates and have good behavior records while locked up.
Still, they're all criminals or accused criminals, and where there are so few beds, the task of deciding who's the lowest risk is sometimes a no win situation. "They might be the least serious of a bunch of serious inmates," Cunningham said.
Redmond was booked into jail on Oct. 14, Heaps on June 4 and Hurt on Aug. 20. Investigators are looking at ties with family and friends and hoping those might lead them to the men.
Complicating matters for jail officials Thursday morning was a water main break on the third floor of the Metro Hall building. The water ran downhill into some of the living areas for inmates.
A number of court appearances were canceled Thursday morning, and Cunningham wasn't sure if that would continue all day. The booking section of the jail re-opened about 9 a.m., and officers were moving prisoners around inside the building, he said.