The convicted murderer mistakenly released from the York County Jail in February was dressed in street clothes and his paperwork didn’t tell deputies he was to be returned to a North Carolina prison, a York County Sheriff’s Office investigation has found. Thomas Aaron Whitlock, 31, who had been serving an 11- to 14-year sentence in North Carolina for murdering a Charlotte man, was in York County on Feb. 27 for a crack cocaine possession charge hearing.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to the 19 days already served and was then mistakenly released. He was recaptured following a four-day manhunt. Authorities found him a few miles south of Dallas, Texas, at his girlfriend’s house. He surrendered.
Rules governing the transportation of prisoners across state lines require the use of certain forms, according to a sheriff’s office statement Wednesday, and the investigation showed those forms were used properly.
A form given to deputies transporting Whitlock between the N.C. prison and the York County jail did not indicate that he must be returned to the prison, according to the statement.
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The sheriff’s office statement said that form was “inadequate” for informing deputies of the status of an inmate and whether he must be returned to another facility.
All employees performed their duties “according to unwritten practice and transport procedures that have functioned without incident for many years,” the statement said.
The sheriff’s investigation found those procedures “were not sufficiently detailed” to prevent the incident.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett confirmed Wednesday that the form was filled out correctly, and that moving forward, better communication is critical.
“We’ve all agreed, looking backward with the benefit of hindsight ,” he said, “the more people that tell the detention center and the deputies who are transporting and everybody involved throughout the process is for the better.”
Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, emailed this statement when asked to comment on the sheriff’s report.
“The N.C. Division of Adult Correction followed the proper procedures of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers and provided appropriate forms.”
He declined further comment.
Deputies who picked up Whit-lock weren’t told verbally that Whitlock was to be returned to the N.C. prison, nor did they receive any written documentation saying so, the sheriff’s statement said.
Also, York County Detention Center employees did not receive any documentation that Whitlock came from the N.C. prison and was to be taken back there.
It is unclear whether such communications are part of the process.
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant did not return a call on Wednesday, and the press release indicated that the sheriff’s office would not comment further on the investigation.
In a press conference soon after Whitlock’s release in February, Bryant tied the mistaken release to the point at which Whitlock entered the York County system, but he didn’t provide details about procedures.
“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 in February. “We made amistake, and it was a human error that we regret ... more than anybody would ever know.”
Bryant also said in February, “We will hold accountable those who made the mistake.”
Wednesday’s statement from the sheriff’s office makes no mention of any disciplinary action.
Capt. Jerry Hoffman, lead spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said shortly after 4:30 p.m. Wednesday he would answer questions about the press release if they were emailed to him. The Herald sent its questions to him at 5:45 p.m. By 11p.m., the newspaper had not received a response to its questions.
In future cases, the solicitor’s office and the sheriff’s office will notify jail officials directly whenever an inmate is being brought to York County from another state, according to the statement.
Those notifications will trigger new procedures at the detention center to alert employees when an inmate arrives and must be returned to another agency.
The sheriff’s office also created a new document that transport deputies and booking officers will receive. The document will tell them when an inmate must be returned to another facility.
All inmates also will be clothed in bright orange jail jumpsuits – not civilian attire – before they are taken anywhere.
The prisoner transportation process is initiated through the governor’s office, Brackett said. Documents between the solicitor’s office and North Carolina’s Department of Corrections authorize the transport, which is then shifted to the sheriff’s office.
Brackett said the process has occurred hundreds of times and has worked “flawlessly.” Whitlock’s release was a combination of errors, he said.
All agencies involved will do everything they can to prevent it from happening again, he added, saying there will now be “multiple redundant safety measures” in place.
One of the larger problems was the fact that Whitlock was transported in civilian clothing, Brackett said, which doesn’t typically happen when prison inmates are moved.
“You don’t want them to be able to blend back into society if they try to make a break for it,” he said.