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Breakout On Low Gap Road

Mid-winter, Ukiah, many years ago. 

The sullen skies, the weary sun, the scheming team of idle men with crafty minds huddled in a cell at the county jail on Low Gap Road, planning an escape. 

Foolproof? Nah, but it looked pretty tight, orchestrated even, and at that point it was simply a matter of the clouds and the sun cooperating. And the Corrections Deputy not going south. 

So, winter weather being winter weather, the several pieces fell together soon enough. The late afternoon sun sank low over the western hills. Game afoot. 

It wasn’t until a few days after the jailbreak took place and dust had begun to settle that I was at the Mendocino County jail sitting in a small room with a small table and two plastic chairs, talking with one of the guys who had helped plan and execute the jailbreak. 

He was a young, cheerful chap, happy to explain how they’d plotted it. I was a fairly experienced criminal defense investigator, intrigued by their little caper that had worked — briefly. 

The plan was proposed by a newcomer, a young Italian guy from New Jersey who’d been arrested and detained on this charge or that, and was determined to depart county lodgings, legally or not. His family was Mafia, he let his fellow prisoners know, and they were particularly anxious to have him back. 

How anxious? 

“He was saying there’d be big money for us all,” said my co-conspirator client, including an outsized payout for any jailhouse guard willing to look the other direction for a very short period of time. That minor contribution, easily explainable when the questions started being asked, would be worth $100,000 said Mr. Mafia. 

And they’d already plucked the on-duty officer out: A young, heavyset fellow recently married and with a baby, and in sufficient need of extra household funding that he’d agreed. Let’s pause to imagine the emotional turmoil the deputy was sweating through. 

My client had been guaranteed 10 grand for his contributions. “Did you really believe the guy?’ I asked. “That he had the connections and the money and he’d actually pay all of you?” 

“At the time, yeah!” he laughed. “Now? Aww hell no. Obviously not.’ 

The small interview room in which this discussion took place opened onto a hallway that ran maybe 40 feet, stopping at a locked and barred door leading to wings of jail cells. 

Walking down that hallway (I’d walked it a hundred times over the years) there were a series of darkened windows on the right-hand side. The 12-foot stretch was the security division. The only illumination visible to passersby were small black-and-white surveillance camera video displays. 

Cameras provided views of all the jail interior, its outside grounds and perimeter. But some prisoner at some point had realized something: An outdoor camera perched atop the jail, facing westward, was briefly blinded by the setting sun in winter. 

Well now. 

Around 4:30 the sun grazed the mountain tops, then splashed onto the camera lens and caused the video screen in the surveillance center to go snow-white. 

Fertile minds of bored prisoners realized a modest patch of jail real estate was invisible for about five minutes on certain mid-winter afternoons. So a team of inmates spent four-plus minutes daily working the cyclone fence loose along the southwestern edge of the jail. 

And then one day winter weather brought sullen skies and a weary sun to Ukiah. And as the late afternoon sun nestled against distant ridge tops, a video screen in the Mendocino County Jail went blank. 

Simultaneously, 100 feet east of where the cyclone fence had been compromised, a trio of prisoners broke into a rowdy, free-swinging fight of shoving, pushing and slamming into each other. 

A corrections officer hurried over to break it up. Inside, the security team was alerted to the brawl picked up by an east-facing camera, but with no idea of a tall guy squirming under the fence off to the west. 

Under, out, and away. 

It ended minutes later with his arrest at the corner of Low Gap Road and North State Street. My client pled to a conspiracy charge, Mafia Man and the others took different routes to their sentencing destinations. 

The only face I remember was that of the corrections officer a few days later, standing in a courthouse hallway, cuffed in the midst of a dozen others, looking shamed, haunted and afraid. 

So much lost on a gamble taken to make things so much better. 

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