By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A manhunt was underway on Thursday for an Idaho inmate who escaped jail by inching across crawl space above the facility's ceiling before dropping into the lobby of the local sheriff’s office, where he stole an employee's purse and fled on foot, authorities said.
Roy Bieluch, 48, had been jailed on burglary and theft charges at the Shoshone County Public Safety facility in northern Idaho, where he was among inmates assigned to cooking and janitorial duties that allowed him to move somewhat freely inside the facility, law enforcement officials said.
A nationwide arrest warrant has been issued for Bieluch, and state and local police were scouring a mountainous historic Idaho mining district, the Silver Valley, that is riddled with caves and abandoned mines.
On Thursday, Idaho authorities cleared and searched buildings in the small town of Wallace in addition to combing the backcountry for signs of the inmate. It was not immediately known if Bieluch had obtained a firearm in the days since his Tuesday escape from jail, police said.
Law enforcement officials have arrested Bieluch's girlfriend on suspicion of aiding a felon for help she gave him after he fled the jail, where she now is being held without bond, Shoshone County Sheriff Mitch Alexander said.
Alexander said in a statement that the county's jail was built in 1972 and does not meet current standards for security.
Modifications to the structure over the years did not correct deficiencies like the escape route discovered by Bieluch, who gained access to the ceiling crawl space through a closet, according to the sheriff.
He said some of the blame for the escape must also be placed on budget cuts in 2008 that reduced by two the number of jail positions.
"This leaves our jail without adequate staffing," Alexander said.
He added that shortfalls in county tax revenue mean the positions will not be funded anytime soon, leading the county's insurance provider to warn of a reduction in liability coverage.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)