At least four jailers recommended for termination

Robin Fornoff

Curry County Manager Lance Pyle is calling week-long events inside the jail leading up to the escape of a maximum-security inmate “unbelievable … a tremendous breach.”

Pyle said Friday that an internal investigation revealed the escapee, Narcizo Soto, 35, was allowed to work on the floor beginning Nov. 7, a week before his early morning escape Nov. 13.

Pyle said the investigation revealed Soto — accused of shooting at his girlfriend’s car while her child was in it on Feb. 26 — told a detention officer on the night of Nov. 7 that he was supposed to be working with the floor crew.

Pyle said the officer, on his own, then removed Soto from his cell, or pod, allowing him to join a work crew in violation of jail policy.

More unbelievable, Pyle said, is that a captain and three other supervisors aware of Soto working “did nothing to correct this during the course of the week.”

Pyle said because of the investigation’s findings, three officers were served Friday with notice of intent to terminate their employment and placed on paid administrative leave. He said disciplinary action is pending for another officer next week. Pyle could not discuss details until after it is executed.

Pyle said the latest notifications are in addition to a sergeant who was already fired Tuesday. He also noted that unlike the sergeant, the others served are entitled to hearings that Pyle will conduct within five to 10 days.

County employees with less than one year of service are considered probationary and not entitled to such hearings.

Pyle said at the conclusion of the hearings, he could find for termination or some other lesser punishment.

Soto was stripping floors with two other inmates in administrative offices when he escaped through an unlocked door at 1:23 a.m. on Sunday. He was recaptured about 7:45 p.m. that night after being found hiding in the attic of a Clovis relative’s home.

Pyle said the internal investigation was conducted by interim jail Administrator Tori Sandoval and Assistant County Manager Connie Harrison with assistance from Personnel Coordinator Carrie Whilhite. He said only eight people were working the night of the escape because two employees called in sick and another failed to report.

Of the eight personnel working, one was the sergeant who has been fired, five were detention officers and two were booking specialists.

The sergeant, Pyle said, followed procedure and notified his lieutenant about the staff shortage. Pyle said the supervisor, a lieutenant, said he tried calling five employees to come into work to fill the gap and wasn’t successful.

“The captain and lieutenant in charge were both asked why they didn’t come in and help cover the shift,” Pyle said. “Both stated they thought the sergeant was OK to supervise the shift.”

As a part of the investigation, Sandoval and Harrison asked a captain why Soto was allowed to work all week.

“The captain responded that since the floor crew was in her presence most of the time, she thought nothing of it,” Pyle said.

Pyle said another supervisor knew Soto was out working during the week.

“A lieutenant had even told his shift to pull the inmate Soto as well as two other inmates out on the night of Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 to finish the floors,” Pyle said. “The lieutenant was asked if he aware of Soto’s charges and told Sandoval yes, but assumed that he was approved to work.”

Pyle said another supervisor stated that she was aware of Soto’s charges but still allowed the inmate to work.

Pyle said the sergeant acting as supervisor on the night of the escape was asked why Soto was allowed to work.

Pyle said his response was that Soto had been allowed to work by “higher ups,” meaning a lieutenant, a captain and another supervisor.

Pyle said the sergeant stated he had been personally watching Soto. He stated he just stepped into booking to give his key to a detention officer and that is when he was notified by the control room that an inmate had run out.

Pyle said the sergeant’s story didn’t coincide with video from cameras inside the jail.

“He was standing in the booking area of the center, leaning and sitting against the counter visiting and not supervising the inmate,” Pyle said. “This allowed the inmate to escape.”

Pyle declined to identify the sergeant who was supervising and has been fired. But the only sergeant working the shift that night, according to a roster obtained by the CNJ, is identified as Michael Leopard. When the CNJ telephoned the jail Friday and asked for Leopard, a jail employee said Leopard no longer worked at the facility.

Attempts to seek comment from Leopard were not successful.

“Inmate Soto was never approved to work on any type of work detail outside his pod,” said Pyle. “A breach of safety and security was made starting with the captain all the way down to the detention officer who worked the night shift (Nov. 7) and decided on his own to pull Soto out and place him on a work crew.”

Pyle praised detention officer Marty Gentry, who was manning the control room and spotted Soto slipping out an outside door.

“He was the officer working the control room (who) caught the escape and because of his actions it was reported within one minute to law enforcement,” Pyle said.

Pyle also said he is now encouraging low-level jail employees who observe improper or questionable procedures or security breaches inside the jail “to step up for the community’s safety and report it.”

“If supervisors are allowing these things to occur,” Pyle said, “they (lower level workers) need to call me. And, it will be addressed.”

Sandoval, contacted at home late Friday, said the investigation and subsequent actions are meant to send a message to jail workers and the community.

“These actions were taken to show…that this is not going to be tolerated,” Sandoval said. “People are going to be held accountable for their actions.”

Sandoval said all supervisors and officers, including herself, are being placed on mandatory extra hours to cover the gap of losing five workers in an already short-staffed jail.

She also said four additional officers were hired this week.