A year ago today, dozens of police and undercover agents were rushing around Rock Hill hoping to find a convicted killer and drug dealer mistakenly released from the York County jail.
The accidental release of a career criminal sparked a nationwide manhunt before Thomas Aaron Whitlock was caught in Texas three days later.
In 2012, 8,744 inmates were processed in and out of the jail. Not a single inmate has been wrongly released since Whitlock, jail officials say, and improvements were made concerning how the jail identifies prisoners at intake and through the jail and court system.
The mistake – one mistaken release in 16 years Sheriff Bruce Bryant has run the jail – shined a brief national spotlight on the county jail and the way inmates were documented.
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But the result is a jail with stricter controls, court and other public officials say, and confidence the jail is better run than ever.
Bryant, in charge of the jail at the Moss Justice Center and 327 employees of the sheriff’s office, took full responsibility after Whitlock’s release. Calling it a combination of human and paperwork errors, he launched a full investigation and implemented stricter inmate-check procedures.
“I promised that we would fix the problem and we did,” Bryant said. “I vowed to make sure that the proper paperwork system would be put in place, and it has worked.”
Whitlock was serving an 11- to 14-year prison term in North Carolina for murder in early February 2012 when he was brought to York County for a court appearance on other charges.
But when he was booked into the York County jail, no paperwork indicated he was supposed to go back after his court appearance, despite the fact that deputies had picked him up.
Whitlock’s release on Feb. 27 wasn’t noticed by sheriff’s officials until a day later, when local, state and federal police started a manhunt.
Police did not tell the public through the media for another day after that, saying they had hoped surveillance in Whitlock’s hometown of Rock Hill would lead to his capture.
Before Whitlock was caught without incident in Texas trying to visit a former girlfriend, a reward of $5,000 was offered. Whitlock later admitted that friends in the drug trade helped him flee in a rented car.
A new document required for transport deputies was created after the incident, as well as the institution of an internal computer and paperwork system that alerts jailers an inmate is coming from another state or jurisdiction.
That documentation follows the inmate throughout the system in York County, Bryant said.
A Sheriff’s office review of the incident last year showed communication, oversight and paperwork problems specific to out-of-state prisoners brought to York County for trial.
Supervisors now have to sign and complete forms of transfer. Last year, Whitlock was transferred from one deputy to another. That is no longer allowed.
Bryant, sheriff since 1997, ran unopposed in 2012. His handling of the incident drew praise from fellow Republicans as well as from Democrats.
“Sheriff Bryant handled this quickly, and I am totally satisfied with how it was handled,” said Chad Williams, one of two Democrats on the York County Council. “I have full confidence in Sheriff Bryant and what was done. This was one incident.”
Public safety is not a Republican or Democratic issue, Williams said, and Bryant gave several updates and a full accounting of the incident and changes made to county officials.
The incident was a “one-time event” that has been addressed, and courts officials are “absolutely confident” that it won’t happen again, said Harry Dest, 16th Circuit chief public defender. His staff goes to the jail dozens of times each day to meet with hundreds of clients.
“The sheriff’s office has a huge volume of people to deal with, and they handle it extremely well,” Dest said. “The sheriff and his staff took the steps needed to make sure that this won’t happen again. I have absolute confidence in how the jail is working.”
Bryant did reprimand two employees – a captain and a patrol officer – after the internal review showed flaws in the system and human errors.