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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Michael David Elliot: Breaking Out of Prison Was the Easy Part

     In August 1993, a 19-year-old armed robber and arsonist named Michael David Elliot and a criminal associate entered a house near Midland, Michigan with their guns drawn. They had come to the Bentley Township home 140 miles northwest of Detroit to rob Michael and Bruce Tufnell and their friends Vickie Currie and Kathy Lane. Elliot and his accomplice needed the money for drugs. When the home invaders didn't find any cash in the house, they opened fired on the victims, killing all four of them. Before leaving the murder scene, Elliot set fire to the house.

     Four days after the mass murder, police officers arrested Elliot in Saginaw, Michigan. He still possessed the .38-caliber revolver that had fired ten of the fifteen bullets removed from the bodies of the four murder victims.

     At his August 1994 trial, Elliot claimed that he had purchased the murder weapon the day after the massacre from the real killer. He also asserted that at the time of the murders he was at his aunt's house. The jury found the defendant guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Elliot told the judge that despite his conviction, he was innocent. The judge sentenced him to four life terms to be served at the Ionia Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Ionia, Michigan.

     During the first 14 years of his incarceration, Elliot was a problem inmate with 20 acts of misconduct. But after December 2008, he began serving his time as a model prisoner. Perhaps he decided that a low profile would enhance his chances to escape.

     On February 2, 2014--Super Bowl Sunday--while the other inmates were headed for dinner, the five-foot-eight, 165 pound Elliot made his move. Dressed in a white kitchen uniform to blend in with the snow, Elliot pulled back the bottoms of two fences and crawled to freedom. (Is this what passed for maximum security in Michigan? Where was the fence electricity, the motion detectors, and the prison guards? Were all the guards watching the Super Bowl?)

     After trudging through fields and woods, the escapee walked into the town of Ionia where he used a box cutter to abduct a woman. Elliot and his hostage, in her 2004 red Jeep Liberty, crossed the Michigan border into Indiana. At 9:15 that night, correction officers performing a routine head-count discovered that inmate Elliot was missing.

     Just before midnight, Elliot and his captive stopped for gas at a Marathon station in the town of Middlebury. While he paid for the gas, she entered the gas station restroom and locked the door. Using the cellphone she had kept hidden, the kidnapped woman called 911. After calmly reporting the carjacking and describing her captor, Elliot came to the restroom door and told her to hurry-up. "Yeah, in a little bit," she said. "Sorry, it's taking me longer than what I thought." At that point Elliot decided to drive off without her.

     At 5 PM on February 3, 2014, Elliot pulled into Shipshewan, a town twenty miles east of Elkhart, Indiana. There he abandoned the Jeep Liberty and stole a Chevy Monte Carlo.

     Not long after the prison escapee stole the Monte Carlo, a La Porte County sheriff's deputy spotted the stolen vehicle and tried to pull it over. The high-speed chase that followed ended abruptly when Elliot drove over stop sticks that flattened the Chevy's tires. Officers took him into custody. He had been free less than 48 hours.

     In speaking to a reporter with the Detroit Free Press after his capture, Elliott said, "I just seen an opportunity. It was really simple." Of the five main strategies inmates use to escape low-security facilities--the cut-and-run, the ruse, the tunnel, the outside accomplice, and the walk-away, Elliott's methodology combined the ruse and the cut-and-run. The problem was, he was not incarcerated in a minimum security facility.

     On February 6, 2014, a spokesperson for the prison announced that two corrections employees had been suspended in connection with the escape. One was a corrections officer and the other a shift commander.

     Michael Elliot had found a way to escape from a maximum security penitentiary, but he wasn't equipped to elude capture once he got outside prison fences. While prison escapes are rare, it's even more unusual for escapees to remain at large for more than a few days. 

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