Inmates apprehended after crawling through jail vents

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Inmates at Carter County Jail are constantly inventing new ways to amuse themselves. Fortunately, alert jailers usually thwart their activities.
   Such was the case July 9, when Deputy Mike Commons, who was working the jail, heard "digging" noises around 11:30 p.m., coming through the wall between the trusty and laundry rooms.
   Deputy Commons determined the noises originated in D Block and went to investigate. Upon entering the block, the officer saw two male inmates leaving the shower area. When he looked inside the shower stall, he observed inmate Natasha Bowers standing there, wearing only her bra and panties. Bowers, 23, 194 Roy Bowers Road, is awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the 2001 drug death of 23-year-old James Aaron Cornett of Elizabethton after she allegedly injected him with Oxycodone.
   As Deputy Commons was removing Bowers from the men's block, she advised him that inmate John Moore, 24, 404 Sugar Hollow Road, Roan Mountain -- who is serving time on violation of probation -- was in G Block, which was assigned to the women. When Deputy Commons entered the women's block, he saw Moore's legs hanging out of the vent in the ceiling above the day room toilet.
   Deputy Eric Buck assisted Commons by escorting Moore to the visitation room, where he was secured. Bowers was placed in a holding cell and both blocks were locked down. A head count was conducted to verify the whereabouts of all inmates and the chain of command was notified.
   Upon questioning by Deputies Commons and Buck, Bowers told the officers that nothing of a sexual nature had transpired between herself and the male inmates. She provided a written statement to that effect of her own free will, according to an incident report.
   Carter County Sheriff John Henson said the ventilation system ductwork has been a problem not only during his administration but others as well.
   "I remember several times, under other administrations, when inmates went into the roof and even went around to other parts of the jail. They kept it hidden -- it never happened -- but it sure did happen, because I was here. I remember one inmate going in and getting back into the evidence room," Henson said.
   In 1994, when Sheriff Paul Peters was in office, then 24-year-old inmate Gerald Lingerfelt, who was charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of a Valley Forge woman, crawled through a vent in the ceiling and inched his way approximately 40 feet before being apprehended by then-Jailer Patrick Johnson.
   Deputy Dean Jones, also a jailer at the time, was alerted to the escape attempt by inmates in A Block. Lingerfelt, who was 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 120 pounds, was located by Johnson, who climbed in and found Lingerfelt wedged in a section of the crawl space. Lingerfelt finally was convinced to come down. He is now serving life in prison without possibility of parole on the murder charge, plus five years for the arson of a Valley Forge sawmill.
   Sgt. Wendell Treadway, jail administrator, said that while having inmates access the ventilation system is "not an everyday thing, it's happened more than one time. Greg Oaks of Roan Mountain escaped from F Block under Sheriff Bill Crumley," Treadway said.
   According to Sheriff Henson, when you house females and males in the same facility, "You're going to have inmates do that. It's unfortunate. But until other arrangements are made with this ventilation system, we're going to have problems from time to time. Any time that you can take a vent out of the jail and go up into the roof, and go into another cell, it's bad.
   "The vents have locks on them but what they do is they tear the locks off. The ceiling is nothing but plaster and they can rip that vent out easily. The good thing about this whole incident is they were caught before anything happened," the sheriff said. "The jailers were alert and they caught them within a matter of minutes."
   Henson said that from now on, anyone else caught in the ventilation system will be charged with attempted escape.
   Sgt. Treadway said that inmates in both blocks received disciplinary action and that the women were relocated to another block "because about a week prior, we were having problems with the females, and the block where they were, we could not lock down. This block we can lock down."
   According to the sheriff, locks in the cellblocks have been worked on since the incident "and they are fixed now and operating. At 11 p.m., the lights go out and the slams are locked. That should solve the problem."
   Sgt. Treadway said that because of the way the jail is structured, it's not difficult to get inside the vents. "What we've done and what we really need to do is continue to put mesh wire over the vents" and bolt it to the ceiling.
   Treadway said he believes that getting into the ventilation system is something the inmates perceive as a challenge, such as: "Can I actually do this?" just to see whether they can get away with it.