New Mexico moves to fire guards in case of escaped felons

AP News
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Posted: Apr 01, 2016 2:41 PM

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Corrections Department plans to fire two guards who were in charge of a transport van when two violent felons escaped, a corrections union representative said Friday.

Miles Conway, a spokesman for the union representing the corrections officers, said the two guards received notices they will be terminated from the state Corrections Department. The notices are the first step in the administrative process for firing an employee based on performance of work duties.

The Corrections Department had no immediate comment Friday. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said last week that no charges were pending against the transport guards.

State officials have declined to say how the shackled inmates slipped by transport officers Taracina Morgan and Michael Ortega during a fuel stop along a remote New Mexico highway.

The escape went undetected for four hours until the transport van arrived at a correctional facility in Las Cruces. The Corrections Department says its policies require transport officers to guard prison vans at all times.

Authorities re-apprehended inmates Joseph Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Lionel Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery and shooting at a police officer, on March 11 and 12 in Albuquerque after an initial manhunt that extended beyond state lines and to the U.S. border with Mexico. Several people have been arrested on accusations they helped Cruz and Clah in the hours and days after the escape.

Conway, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, declined to share a copy of the termination notices against officers Morgan and Ortega. He said the notices in general list all alleged violations of state policies and procedures that justify termination. Morgan and Ortega were placed on administrative leave shortly after the prisoners' escape.

Union representatives say broader systematic problems, including lengthy overtime shifts, appear to have played a role in the escapes, though the union has not been able to review investigative materials.

"There is a lot of systematic stuff that went wrong there that makes the union enthusiastic to mount a defense for these employees," Conway said.

Separately, Morgan stands accused in a federal lawsuit of of leaving a van full of shackled inmates unattended in a hot vehicle for up to an hour in July 2013. A corrections spokeswoman said an internal investigation cleared Morgan of the allegations, though the civil case brought by one of the inmates against the department, Morgan and another guard has not yet been resolved in court.