Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Clint Keller | The Journal Gazette: Members of the 1-293rd look at handouts of two of the three escaped prisoners in Columbia, Miss., as they complete a presence patrol in the small town early Sept. 6, 2005.

  • Clint Keller | The Journal Gazette: Spec. Adam Stephenson uses a night-vision scope to check the perimeter of a water tower and the local armory near Columbia, Miss., as members of the 1-293rd complete a presence patrol late Sept. 5 and early Sept. 6, 2005.

  • Clint Keller | The Journal Gazette: Members of the 1-293rd slowly made their way through Columbia, Miss., in the overnight hours Sept. 5, 2005. Part of their mission was to help the local sheriff look for three escaped prisoners in the blacked-out region.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 10:19 pm

Patrolling for prisoners

REBECCA S. GREEN | The Journal Gazette

This story was first published Sept. 7, 2005:

As if tree-strewn roads, fuel shortages, four tornadoes and looting weren't enough for law enforcement in Mississippi's Marion County to worry about, now they have had a jailbreak from the Marion-Walthall Regional Correctional Facility.

Three prisoners managed to pry through the ceiling in their cell Monday afternoon, using a homemade screwdriver, and scurried though the ductwork and out a maintenance door.

And for law enforcement in Columbia, still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the escape of the prisoners, including two facing charges of murder and capital murder, pushed them to call for the cavalry.

After spending most of Labor Day in the laborious convoy making its way from Indiana to Mississippi as part of the massive response to the deadly storm, the soldiers in the 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry from Fort Wayne as well as a few with Echo Troop 238th Cavalry from Bluffton drove the hour from Camp Shelby to Columbia to offer assistance.

Rumbling across U.S. 98, a group of six Humvees filled with armed soldiers arrived in Columbia not long after sunset.

Charlie Conerly, Marion-Jefferson Davis County emergency management director, met Lts. Jon Robertson and Bruce Baltis at the door to his office with obvious relief.

As the soldiers listened, Conerly outlined days of difficulty in the wake of Katrina -- neighborhoods still without power, homeowners wrestling with looters, and the theft of handguns and an assault rifle from an area pawnshop.

There have been shots fired at a gas station in a fuel line. City fire crews fought three house fires Monday, and there was another one in the county. It is the only time Conerly can remember both the city and the county being without power.

And Federal Emergency Management Agency crews still have not made their presence felt, Conerly said.

"If they don't show up in the next day, (residents) are fixing to kill somebody," he said.

Marion County Sheriff Richard "Rip" Stringer was 17 when Hurricane Camille hit in 1969 and has been in law enforcement since 1976. This has been unlike anything he has ever seen, he said, standing in front of the sheriff's department in a pair of overalls.

"I don't know that anyone was prepared for this," he said. "I know I wasn't."

What has been hard for Stringer has been watching his own officers struggle with the loss of their own homes, while still trying to keep the peace in a restless community.

"That's the worst," Stringer said. "An officer is thinking about his own and can't do anything about it."

When Katrina hit, Stringer took his wife -- a nurse -- to work and waited the storm out with some of his children and grandchildren. Stringer worried about those who weren't with them, and there was no power, no phones, and no way to make sure they were all right.

The help from around the country has been a welcome relief, he said.

"We're a small department. If it wasn't for people like this ... ," he said, his voice trailing off as he looked out into the parking lot toward the soldiers.

Wearing night-vision scopes, pictures of the wanted men in hand, and orders to stop any car violating Columbia's dusk-to-dawn curfew, the soldiers slowly made their way through the community.

As midnight approached, the "presence patrol" searched the damaged airport, rolled through still-darkened neighborhoods and checked on hospital officials. A few residents stuck their heads out their front doors to watch them go past.

The soldiers could not arrest or detain anyone and had to turn down an offer by Stringer to deputize them.

"These are Americans. These are our brothers," Baltis told the convoy as they headed out. "Don't let them get stupid, but if they do, protect your brothers."

Each time they checked in with the local officials, the response was a hearty "thank you" and an enthusiastic desire to see the soldiers stay in the community.

The six-vehicle convoy headed back to Camp Shelby around 1 a.m., with soldiers sleeping on the piles of equipment and gear in the back of the Humvees.

"We're a presence here to help these people," Baltis had reminded them. "Be friendly. Be firm."