SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Authorities were searching Thursday for two violent convicts who escaped from a prisoner transport van and likely got a head start of several hours in a rural area of New Mexico before guards realized they were gone.
It appeared neither of the corrections officers had checked on the prisoners between the two stops in a stretch of nearly 200 miles, New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said.
Mercantel couldn't say exactly when and where the convicts had made their escape.
It was likely a failure in the transport — not a breakdown in the system — that led to the men's escape, he said.
"In almost every case that you have a set of circumstances like this, it is not a matter of a lack of policies, a lack of systems, a lack of structure," Marcantel said. "It's a matter of somehow or another we failed in that structure."
State Police investigators faced the daunting task of searching a wide swath of New Mexico for Joseph Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Lionel Clah, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery in 2009.
Both were shackled with leg irons and belly chains and wearing white prison jumpsuits before they fled. They were later seen on hotel surveillance video that surfaced Thursday afternoon showing each wearing jeans. Clah was wearing a red T-shirt, and Cruz was wearing a tan shirt with a collar.
The video was from around 4:30 a.m. Thursday, about seven hours after authorities believe the men made their escape and at least 200 miles north of where corrections officers reported seeing them last.
They were last accounted for around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday with three other inmates being transported between prisons in Roswell and Las Cruces.
Corrections officers didn't realize Cruz and Clah were missing until around 1 a.m. Thursday. The public was alerted several hours later.
The men should be considered armed and dangerous, authorities said.
Cruz, 32, has been serving a life sentence since 2007 for killing a man over drugs in Raton in northern New Mexico. Clah, 29, was convicted in Farmington in 2009 of armed robbery and assault with intent to commit a violent felony on a peace officer.
Cruz has the word "TRIBAL" tattooed on his neck, while "SHIPROCK NATIVE" is tattooed on Clah's neck and feathers has been inked on his left cheek.
"Pretty hard to miss," Marcantel said at a news conference in Santa Fe.
Authorities were struggling as they searched for the men.
"At the end of the day, it's really going to be probably solved by someone who calls us," Marcantel said.
The search was joined by the U.S. Border Patrol and local police departments, and it involved dogs, aircraft and foot patrols. State police also were seeking surveillance footage from the gas station in Artesia where the van had stopped.
Investigators were trying to determine if the escape was planned or spontaneous.
"This must be investigated as something more organized," he said. "We can't just assume an opportunity (presented itself)."
The escape comes after Corrections Department officials warned of dangerously low staffing levels at prison facilities across the state and of low wages that made it difficult to keep qualified officers on staff.
In November, another inmate fled a minimum-security facility south of Albuquerque in the middle of the night after a series of missteps by the state.
"People are rightly concerned about what's happening with the escapees," Artesia Police Commander Lindell Smith said Thursday.
Smith's department placed extra officers on patrol to help with the search.
Hudetz reported from Albuquerque.
This story has been corrected to reflect that authorities said the escape occurred Wednesday night.