The six killers serving life behind bars had spent a lot of time in the prison chapel recently. But they were not singing in the choir or rehearsing for the Christmas play. They were digging.
For weeks the men sneaked undetected into the crawl space beneath the red brick chapel at Glades Correctional Institution, carving a 45-foot long tunnel from the rich, black Okeechobee muck with pilfered shovels and burrowing under a razor-wire fence. Then a few minutes before roll call Monday evening, they made their dash for freedom, in one of the most dramatic escapes in recent Florida history.
One was recaptured almost immediately. But the other five - all of them serving life sentences for firstdegree murder - are still at large and considered armed and extremely dangerous.
At least three of the escapees ran for the sugar cane fields that surround the facility. Bloodhounds lost their scent about a mile from the prison and officials speculated the men were still in the area, perhaps hiding in the snake-infested cane, whose stiff, razor-like leaves can cut human flesh to ribbons.
“All of these men have killed before,” said Glades superintendent Gerald Abudi-Wasi, who noted that the escapees are armed with crude but sharp prison-made knives. “And they say it gets easier the second time.”
Glades officials, seeking to explain how such an elaborate escape could have occurred, said there was not a whisper of an impending break among prison snitches who usually tip them off.
“This was the most tight-lipped escape attempt I’ve heard in my 22 years,” said assistant supervisor John Townsend.
Townsend said the captured escapee, Felix Carbonell, who turned 34 Tuesday, told officials the jail break was planned over the last two months. The assistant superintendent guessed that the prisoners had been digging their tunnel for about three weeks.
Their escape was straightforward but highly risky. The men had pried loose a grate that allowed them to access to the crawl-space beneath the prison chapel, a building raised like many here because of flooding on the rich black dirt that coats the farmlands south of Lake Okeechobee.
Once under the chapel, the men apparently worked in shifts, changing into spare uniforms for the dirty work, digging a path about three feet deep and 45 feet long. They used some stolen lumber to buttress the tunnel.
The escapees, all of whom are Cuban-born and come from Miami, are Florencio Alvarez, 34, sentenced to life for first degree murder, who shot a victim several times and bragged later of the killing; Hector Rivas, 32, jailed for the murder of a Key West charter boat captain; Armando Junco, 62, sentenced to life for two counts of first-degree murder, robbery and marijuana trafficking; Jesus Martinez, 48, sentenced to 99 years for first degree murder; and Juan Fleitas, 30, jailed for life for first degree murder.