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High walls thwarted county jail escape

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Memo to: Allegheny County Jail inmates.

Re: Escape attempts.

Message: You're a lot higher up than you think.

Sunday night, for the second time in the three-year history of the jail, a prisoner shattered the window of his cell, rappelled down the side of the building on a rope made of bed sheets and ended up plunging to the ground below.

Last year, Jerome Bullock, 18, of the Hill District, fell 150 feet to his death while trying to rappel from his 17th-story cell. His rope tore apart, but it also was short by 86 feet.

This time Hasan Abdul Stevens, 30, a U.S. Marshal Service prisoner from Monroeville awaiting transfer to a federal prison, lost his grip and fell at least 30 feet while rappelling from his seventh-story cell facing the Parkway East. He landed on grass, breaking his ankle and suffering facial injuries. His 48-foot rope also was too short -- by 25 feet.

Stevens was treated at Mercy Hospital where he remained last night.

U.S. Deputy Marshal Gary Richards said state escape charges would probably be added to his federal sentence of 20 years for cocaine possession. Stevens was not considered a high security risk and had not caused trouble at the jail since his Oct. 16 sentencing.

Jail guards watching on a security camera saw Stevens fall at about 8:40 p.m. after he lost his grip on a rope made of eight bed sheets knotted together.

"I can tell you, if a person is going to make good an escape, it happens almost immediately. He didn't have time to tear the sheets in half (to make a longer rope)," said Warden Calvin Lightfoot. "I think that's why he fell short of his goal."

Or he may have been confused about how high he was. Stevens knew his cell was on the third level, which sounds relatively low. But it's deceiving, because each of the eight levels of jail cells has two stories, and with the administrative offices on the ground floor, Stevens cell is the equivalent of seven stories up.

Bullock had made a similar mistake when he made his rope. Even if it hadn't torn, he would have had to jump from a height of 86 feet.

After Stevens fell, guards quickly handcuffed him while other guards and a deputy sheriff apprehended a woman they said had been waiting in a getaway car. Officers stopped an Acura Integra as it sped toward the First Avenue parking lot exit and arrested the driver, Dara Devinney, 24, of Plum, when a deputy sheriff noticed a picture of her and Stevens on her keychain.

Officials weren't sure of her relationship to Stevens, but she had last visited him Wednesday.

Inside the car, police found a duffel bag filled with men's clothing, a box of jewelry, a pager, bottles of pills and $17,670 in cash in an envelope.

Jail officials and county police were still trying to figure out yesterday exactly how Stevens escaped.

Like Bullock, Stevens managed to shatter the glass of his cell window.

Lightfoot said he then used some kind of instrument -- guards said it was either a hacksaw or a length of steel wire -- to cut one of the two metal bars. He knotted together eight sheets gathered from other inmates, then wet one end and tied it to his metal bed frame to form a secure anchor.

He went out through the window and made his descent, but guards said he slipped about halfway down while holding the middle of one of the sheets.

Stevens may have had help from other inmates earlier in the evening. Jail guards said at 8 p.m. another inmate on the sixth level broke his window, and shortly after that prisoners in eight cells on the second level flushed their toilets at the same time, causing a minor flood and possibly creating a diversion.

A guard heard the window shatter on the sixth level, but apparently no one heard Stevens break his window. Because one guard is responsible for each group of 56 cells, officials said, he might not hear a window break while making checks in another area.

The windows have been a point of contention since the jail opened in 1995. After the Bullock escape, county Commissioner Larry Dunn said the failure to install a bulletproof, shatterproof material called Lexan on the 2,400 cell windows was one of many flaws in construction. He said the material was supposed to be used in the contract, but was taken out to save $5 million.

Instead of Lexan, the county used tempered secure glass, which is used by other jail facilities and is designed to shatter but not leave shards if it's struck hard enough.

In March, the county decided to supply the jail with Lexan, but the high-security areas on the top floors have been getting it first. Stevens' cell was in a low-security area.

Lightfoot said the Lexan installation, which is being done by his maintenance crews, is about 20 percent complete.

"I would like to have it done today," he said.

Still, the jail processes 50,000 prisoners a year. One or two escape attempts, Lightfoot said, aren't cause for concern.

"That's insignificant," he said.

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