CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three murderers created “dummies” to fool correctional officers conducting a nightly headcount at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex before an attempted escape last month, the West Virginia corrections commissioner said.
Jim Rubenstein said an internal investigation into the incident is almost complete. It examines how a 10:15 p.m. head count on July 17 failed to reveal that William Keith “Bobby” Lowe, Daniel Smith and Stephen Wilson weren’t in their cells.
The three men had stuffed blankets and pillows into their beds to make it seem like they were sleeping, Rubenstein said.
“That’s one of the ploys they use to make it look like somebody is in their bunks or their pods,” he said. “That’s why we teach to ‘count flesh.’”
The incident has reinforced prison policy to ensure that correctional officers see inmates physically before counting them in the headcount.
Rubenstein said he wasn’t sure where the inmates hid during the count and didn’t want to comment until the internal investigation’s conclusion.
“We will look to see exactly where they were and how they got in there,” he said.
A correctional officer close to the investigation agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The officer said the three inmates hid in the prison’s library, which was mistakenly left unlocked. The would-be escapees then fled and cleared at least one interior fence.
Rubenstein told a House-Senate oversight committee last month that the men were noticed missing during an 11:30 p.m. headcount. Once they were noticed missing, correctional officers scanned the facility and found them in less than 15 minutes, he said. Lowe and Wilson tried to run from officers before they all were captured inside the 82-acre complex, the commissioner said.
However, the correctional officer stressed that a second head count was not conducted until midnight. The 15-minute estimate is incorrect, the officer said.
The prison is understaffed, and no correctional officer was stationed in the prison’s watchtowers at the time, the officer said.
The Mount Olive prison and the state’s other correctional facilities are at capacity, with about 6,900 inmates, forcing more than 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least part of their sentences in regional jails. The agency’s overall staff turnover was nearly 17 percent last year, The Associated Press has reported.
Rubenstein said no one was at risk during the escape.
“I’d like to stress that our facility is always secure and the community was safe and not in danger,” he said.
There are houses on a ridge behind and beside the maximum-security prison, he said. The next closest community is Pond Gap and then Dixie, which is about three miles from the prison.
Rubenstein said he hopes to present the internal investigation to the commission next month.
“I know they’ve got questions on that,” he said. “I will be following up with the warden and the detachment commander of the State Police to try and have everything for them.”
The West Virginia State Police is conducting an investigation to determine if criminal charges will be presented against the men. The agency’s investigation will be handed to Fayette County prosecutors.
Lowe is serving a life sentence on a 2005 first-degree murder conviction. He was convicted of clubbing Roy Glen Loyd, 55, of Flatwoods, to death at the Rustic Motel in Jefferson on Oct. 19, 2003. He unsuccessfully tried to escape from South Central Regional Jail at the end of 2005.
Smith and Wilson were convicted in 2009 in the slaying of the Rev. Mark McCalla, 48, of Huntington. Authorities said Smith and Wilson were AWOL from the U.S. Army when McCalla was shot in the head at a Cabell County firing range on June 18, 2008. Police believed robbery was the motive because the men took McCalla’s wallet and guns.
Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery and is serving a life sentence with the chance of parole in 2023. The jury granted him mercy after he confessed to his role in the slaying while identifying Wilson as the actual shooter.
Prosecutors later played a recording of Smith’s confession at Wilson’s trial. Wilson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and is scheduled to be released in 2088, at age 100.