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Killer mistakenly released from York Co. jail caught in Texas

Following a four-day manhunt that stretched from South Carolina to Texas, a convicted killer from Rock Hill mistakenly released from jail Monday ended a short-lived run at freedom at 9:09 a.m. Friday when officers knocked on the door of his girlfriend's house.

Thomas Aaron Whitlock, a few miles south of downtown Dallas - not far from where he was once found hiding under a house when wanted for murder - answered the door with his hands up, unarmed.

He then told police how former associates in the crack cocaine trade had helped him flee to Texas in a rental car, police said Friday.

Whitlock, 31, told police that another inmate released around the same time Monday gave him a ride to Rock Hill from the county jail in York, York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said Friday afternoon.

Then Whitlock said, "some of his crack friends in a rental vehicle took him to Dallas," Bryant recounted.

Federal marshals who had found out where Whitlock's girlfriend was staying - not far from where he had been found three years ago while he was being sought for a murder - placed Whitlock in chains without a fight.

"This individual came to the door with his hands in the air," Bryant said.

Police do not believe Whitlock committed any other crimes during his flight apart from his sprint to Texas, although authorities had described him as "dangerous" and offered a $5,000 reward for his capture.

The arrest of Whitlock - who had been serving an 11-14-year sentence in a North Carolina prison for a 2009 killing in Charlotte - culminated a frenetic week for the sheriff's office.

Bryant's office embarked on a widespread manhunt for Whitlock, while at the same time launching an internal probe into what the sheriff described as "human and documentation errors" that led to Whitlock's release from jail after he pleaded guilty Monday to drug charges.

Bryant said his office, responsible for the release, has volunteered to go to Texas and bring Whitlock back to the Carolinas.

It is unclear if Whitlock has to come to York County, but North Carolina corrections officials said Friday Whitlock is that state's prisoner, and he will eventually go back to prison there to finish out his murder sentence.

Prosecutors have not decided if Whitlock will face escape or other charges.

Sentenced to time served Monday after prosecutors wanted to get a second drug conviction against him, Whitlock admitted to the sentencing judge Monday, just an hour before his release, that he had eight years left on his murder conviction in North Carolina, said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor.

"He cannot claim he didn't know he was supposed to go back to jail," in North Carolina, Bryant said.

The sheriff's internal probe is looking at how Whitlock was released and whether it was North Carolina prisons officials or York County officers who made the errors when Whitlock was brought to York County Feb. 8 for the eventual court hearing.

That investigation is also expected to focus on why it took almost 24 hours for the error to be noticed.

It remains unclear if anyone will be charged with aiding Whitlock's flight first to Rock Hill and then to Texas, Bryant said, but authorities are still investigating Whitlock's rush through the Southeast to Texas. Whitlock was in Rock Hill "for a short period of time" after his release Monday, Bryant said.

The inmate who gave Whitlock the ride from York to Rock Hill before the mad dash across the South did not know Whitlock was not supposed to be released, Bryant said.

Before notifying the public Tuesday evening that Whitlock had been mistakenly released, police opted for saturation surveillance and foot searches for Whitlock for six hours - mainly in Rock Hill and Charlotte, where Whitlock had past convictions for drugs and murder.

Whitlock's release sprang a web of police investigators from local beat cops and narcotics officers through federal agents to search in South Carolina, North Carolina and other southeastern states leading to Texas.

In Rock Hill alone, so many officers and undercover agents were in Whitlock's old neighborhoods around Crawford Road south of downtown and in other areas, searching former hangouts and talking to former associates, Bryant said, that "you would think that my investigators lived there."

In 2009, Whitlock was found hiding under a Dallas house after being charged in a murder in Charlotte eight months earlier. Whitlock had shot 24-year-old Jamie Quindonte Thompson several times at a house on Charlotte's northwest side.

It wasn't the same house where Whitlock was found Friday, authorities said, but it is in the same area. Whitlock and the woman who lives there have a child together.

Prosecutors who arranged for Whitlock to come to York to face the drug charges said again Friday that the decision was "crucial" because Whitlock has been in trouble with the law, in drug and violent crimes, his entire adult life.

Monday's conviction - Whitlock's second for drugs on South Carolina's drug conviction scale - means a third conviction would mean a minimum of 10 additional years in prison if Whitlock were convicted again for a drug offense.

If Whitlock is convicted again for a serious drug crime in South Carolina, he could face 30 years in prison, Brackett said.

Despite the severity of the North Carolina murder conviction, Brackett said, it wouldn't count against Whitlock toward sentencing if Whitlock again was convicted of a drug crime in South Carolina.

"I am relieved, and proud of all law enforcement who helped put this man back where he belongs - in a cell," Brackett said.

Whitlock, whom Bracket called a "career criminal," was sentenced to time served Monday because of the long sentence he is already serving.

Whitlock, Bryant said, told police Friday that drug associates helped him flee Rock Hill.

Even though it is unclear if Whitlock will face any charges for his time as what Bryant called "a fugitive from justice," he will soon be back at a North Carolina state prison, said Keith Acre, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

"He's our inmate," Acre said. "York, it seems, is done with him. I would think he would come to us."

Bryant, the sheriff responsible for both law enforcement and jails in York County, again Friday accepted full responsibility for Whitlock's release and vowed to make procedural changes to ensure a similar incident never happens again.

The jail handles as many as 7,000 inmates a year.

"We regret it happened," Bryant said. "It was human error. It was not intentional. When you allow someone to escape, you are responsible for their actions."

Bryant declined to say whether any disciplinary action has been taken against employees involved in the release.

An internal affairs investigation into what happened Monday - including whether paperwork accompanying him from North Carolina to York was in proper order - should be finished next week, Bryant said.

VIDEO: Sheriff's press conference

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