A recordkeeping error led staff at the York County Detention Center to release a convicted murderer by mistake Monday afternoon, authorities said Wednesday.
"We made a mistake and it was a human error that we regret - we regret more than anybody would ever know," York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said Wednesday afternoon outside the Moss Justice Center.
Thomas Aaron Whitlock, 31, was released from the jail at about 3 p.m. Monday and had not been found by Wednesday night. He was serving a 14-year prison term in North Carolina for the shooting death of a Charlotte man.
The Sheriff's Office is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
Whitlock had been in the York County jail since Feb. 8, awaiting a hearing on a pending drug possession charge.
He was mistakenly released, Bryant said, because his file lacked information indicating that he was due back in North Carolina to finish serving his sentence for murder.
The sheriff tied the misstep to the point at which Whitlock entered the York County system, but he did not go into detail about procedures.
The sheriff stressed that he was not suggesting the court made an error.
"The mistake was made because there was no documentation when he was placed in our facility to indicate that he would be returned back to the state of North Carolina," he said.
At Monday's hearing, Whitlock pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence that matched the 19 days he had already served in the York County Detention Center.
Following that hearing, Bryant said, Whitlock was taken to the jail with paperwork "sent down from the courts" indicating his case had ended. With that paperwork in hand, and without the knowledge that Whitlock was serving a sentence in North Carolina, detention officers released him, Bryant said.
A court document, which indicated that Whitlock completed his sentence for the drug charge, did not say he should be returned to North Carolina - nor should it have - said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett.
The "mechanics" of how a defendant moves from one jurisdiction's custody to another lies "outside the purview of the court," he said.
Authorities are conducting an internal investigation to determine what happened and will release details later, Bryant said.
"We will hold accountable those who made the mistake," he said.
A murder conviction
On June 25, 2009, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police were called to an apartment on Old Concord Road in Charlotte's University City area. Jamie Quindonte Thompson, 24, had been shot multiple times.
Police later issued warrants for Whitlock's arrest on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, while Thompson remained in critical condition at Carolinas Medical Center.
After Thompson died in August, about two months after the shooting, police charged Whitlock with murder.
Whitlock remained at large until about eight months later, when a tip led federal agents to Dallas, Texas, where they found him hiding underneath a house. He was convicted of second-degree murder and possession of a gun by a felon in May 2011. He was sentenced to 11-14 years, according to the N.C. Department of Correction.
Whitlock's outstanding York County charge was a third-offense possession of less than one gram of crack cocaine. He could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, said Melissa Inzerillo, the public defender who represented Whitlock in court on Monday.
That charge stems from an April 2009 incident during which police saw Whitlock outside a Clarinda Street house, south of downtown Rock Hill, interacting with someone in a car who was under police surveillance, Inzerillo said.
Whitlock ran into the house, where police found him sitting on a couch. Officers found pieces of crack in the couch and charged him with possession because the drugs were near him, she said.
It was after that hearing that Whitlock was taken back to the jail before being mistakenly released.
Whitlock didn't alert officers that his release was in error, Bryant said, but there's no indication he tried to trick anyone into releasing him.
Authorities said they realized he'd been mistakenly released the next day around 1 p.m., as arrangements were being made to return him to Bertie Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina.
Still on the run
Authorities immediately launched an effort to find Whitlock, but did not inform the public until more than six hours later. Bryant said the delay was to prevent Whitlock from knowing they were looking for him.
The Sheriff's Office is working with law enforcement agencies locally, in North Carolina, and elsewhere to find Whitlock, sheriff's spokesman Lt. Mike Baker said.
Authorities said he has relatives in Rock Hill. When he was arrested in 2010, his address was listed as Dallas, Texas.
Neighbors on Rock Hill's Whitner Street, where Whitlock lived before his arrest on drug and murder charges, said several members of the Whitlock family had lived on the street in the past.
They said they had not seen Whitlock in the neighborhood since he was released Monday.
Some neighbors said police had been on the street looking around since Whitlock was released.
State Law Enforcement Division said Whitlock was charged and convicted between 1997 and 2009 of several offenses, including assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, burglary, robbery, failure to stop for a blue light, and various drug charges.
While in Dallas, Whitlock was convicted of reckless driving, evading arrest and marijuana possession.
How Whitlock, a convicted murderer in prison in North Carolina, came to be in York County is a routine matter, Brackett said.
Prosecutors can request a chance to prosecute defendants currently serving time elsewhere. And an inmate, seeking resolution to outstanding charges in order to have fewer restrictions while in jail, can ask for resolution, which Whitlock did, Brackett said.
Once either happens, authorities have about six months to bring the defendant to the county and resolve the case or dismiss charges.
Chris Epting, the assistant solicitor prosecuting Whitlock, said he decided to pursue a conviction instead of dismissing the drug charge because Whitlock is still young and "a potential criminal threat in York County."
That he didn't serve a lot of time for the conviction doesn't matter, he said.
If Whitlock returns to York County after he serves out his North Carolina prison sentence and engages in drug-related criminal activity, Epting said, any sentence he receives in York County would be more severe because of his conviction this week.
A defendant's proximity to York County and potential for future criminal activity are big factors in whether to prosecute a case, Brackett said.
Brackett said he encourages solicitors to take "an aggressive posture for career criminals."
Contributing: Andrew Dys of The Herald, Domingo Ramirez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Marion Paynter and Meghan Cooke of the Charlotte Observer.
Have you seen him?
Authorities Wednesday were looking for Thomas Aaron Whitlock, 31. He is African-American, 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 144 pounds.
The York County Sheriff's Office said anyone who sees Whitlock should not approach him.
Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to call the Sheriff's Office at 803-628-3059 or Crime Stoppers at 877-409-4321.