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Lawyer: Oversights, miscommunication led to York County inmate’s release

A convicted murderer’s accidental release from the York County jail followed a series of oversights, poor communication, and a lack of specific procedures for handling prisoners from other agencies, said an attorney for the York County Sheriff’s Office.

Kristie Jordan, the attorney, gave The Herald details on Thursday about how Thomas Aaron Whitlock was accidentally released from the York County Jail on Feb. 27.

“There were plenty of places along the way where this could have been averted,” Jordan said. “He got the benefit of all of them.”

Sheriff Bruce Bryant intends to issue written reprimands to several employees, including a captain, Jordan said.

Whitlock, 31, is serving a sentence of up to 14 years in North Carolina for a Charlotte murder. He was brought to York County in February to face a drug charge. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time already served.

After York County authorities discovered Whitlock had been released mistakenly, he was captured four days later in Dallas, Texas, at his girlfriend’s house.

On Wednesday, the sheriff’s department announced it had concluded an investigation into the release. It said an “inadequate” form and the fact that Whitlock was dressed in street clothes when he was sent to York County from the North Carolina prison system contributed to the error.

The sheriff’s office, which had declined to answer questions about the news release and the investigation on Wednesday and Thursday, authorized Jordan to speak to The Herald on Thursday.

She said a series of missed opportunities to identify Whitlock as an inmate who should be returned to North Carolina, and a lack of clear procedures once he arrived in York County, led to Whitlock’s accidental release, Jordan said.

Contributing factors

The form cited by the sheriff’s department as “inadequate” was signed by Capt. Allen Brandon of the York County Sheriff’s Office.

The form states that Whitlock would be taken into custody at the Bertie Correctional Institution in North Carolina on Feb. 8. It also designates Brandon as the agent to “return the prisoner.”

A problem with the form is it only authorizes deputies to go pick up the prisoner and bring him back to York County, Jordan said, and it’s the only form that transport deputies receive when going to get a prisoner.

Brandon was the only person in the sheriff’s office who was officially notified by the solicitor’s office that Whitlock was an inmate serving a sentence in North Carolina who had to be returned after his York County charge was settled, Jordan said.

Brandon gave the deputies the forms and instructed them to pick up Whitlock. But the deputies accidentally gave all of the forms identifying Whitlock as a North Carolina prisoner to authorities in that state when he was picked up, including copies Brandon gave the deputies to keep with them during the transport back to York County.

N.C. authorities claim they returned those copies, but York County authorities have no proof of that. N.C. authorities did give the deputies some documentation of Whitlock’s status as a N.C. inmate in return, Jordan said.

When the transport deputies arrived at the York County Jail, a detention center officer failed to notice Whitlock’s status as a North Carolina inmate during a standard search officers conduct while booking inmates. At that time, the transport deputies gave a sergeant what little documentation they had of Whitlock’s status as a N.C. inmate, and the sergeant mistakenly filed it with other documents sent to the clerk of court.

No procedure was in place to ensure that the deputies report back to Brandon, the one employee tasked with handling Whitlock’s transport.

On Feb. 27, when Whitlock’s case was resolved, the court sent the detention center a form that indicated he received time served, but did not indicate his status as a N.C. inmate.

The form wasn’t required to include that information. Whitlock was released.

On Feb. 28, the detention center, not Brandon, received communication from the Solicitor’s Office indicating that Whitlock’s case had been resolved and he needed to return to North Carolina. That's when authorities discovered Whitlock was missing.

Another contributor to the error was Whitlock’s attire, Jordan said.

Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said North Carolina’s standard outfit for inmates are gray pants and a white T-shirt. Per procedure, inmates are typically given street clothes when they are sent to court.

Safeguards in place

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.

Notifications will begin before an inmate has arrived and 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.

The document will follow the inmate through York County’s system and will require signatures from people who come in contact with the inmate and will be reported back to Brandon.

Employees’ duties when dealing with an inmate from another agency also will be clarified, Jordan said.

All inmates also will be clothed in bright orange jail jumpsuits – not civilian attire – before they are transported to York County.

Reprimands for deputies

Some employees will receive punishment related to the incident, Jordan said.

“It’s the sheriff’s intention to do a written reprimand for everyone associated with (Whitlock’s case),” she said. “Everybody could have done a little bit more to try to avert this.”

“It was overlooked that (the system in place) had the potential for that kind of failure,” she said.

Though Brandon oversaw the transport of prisoners and knew Whitlock’s status, the lack of clear procedures in place even before he took that role means the system, not the employees, is largely to blame, she said, adding that Brandon’s disciplinary action is significant.

“A written reprimand for a captain is huge.”

Jordan emphasized that the sheriff’s office takes full responsibility for what happened.

“We’re not at all saying that we didn’t drop the ball, and we’re not trying to blame it on someone else,” she said.

“It was an oversight that in hindsight is glaring, but at the time was something that had worked for years.”