Two cellmates lowered a rope made of bedsheets from the fifth floor of the Spokane County Jail early Thursday through a window no wider than an iPhone.
The FBI is investigating the incident as an escape attempt because the men are in federal custody. Reports indicated one of the men was James Henrikson, the North Dakota oil speculator who will be tried in October on charges he ordered a hit man to kill South Hill businessman Doug Carlile in December 2013, as well as several other targets.
But officials were mum Thursday on the identity of the would-be escapees, saying there is no threat to the public and all inmates were accounted for by 5 a.m.
“It was thwarted by the good work of the staff,” FBI spokesman Frank Harrill said.
The sheet dangled from the window all the way to a dumpster on the ground below. Ken Coburn, who was working out at the YMCA on Monroe Street about 6 a.m., said he was surprised by the scene.
“We looked across to the jail and there were a whole bunch of sheets tied together dangling down from the building,” he said. “That’s like the oldest trick in the book, next to putting a file in the cake.”
Inmates have access to clean bedding once a week, as required by state law, Spokane County Jail Commander John McGrath said. They also have access to a dirty-laundry bin.
“The accountability of the sheets, that’s something we could absolutely increase,” McGrath said.
County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said she was briefed on the escape attempt but could not share details because of the ongoing FBI investigation.
The rope was made from strips of bedsheets tied together, McGrath said, and hung from the east-facing wall of the Spokane County Jail at dawn. It was removed by jail staff after the FBI processed the scene.
The two men in the cell where the rope was found were cooperative with jail staff, who discovered the rope about 4:40 a.m. The inmates were moved to a different section of the jail, according to a Spokane County news release.
The window the men lowered the rope from measures 4 7/8 inches wide and 46 inches tall, McGrath said. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who ran the jail before Spokane County commissioners took over its operation in June 2013, said he didn’t know of any successful attempts by inmates to squeeze through the jail’s external windows.
“They are very, very narrow,” Knezovich said.
Henrikson has been in the custody of the Spokane County Jail since September, when he and five other men were indicted by a federal grand jury for their alleged roles in the deaths of Carlile, Kristopher “K.C.” Clarke and several other men who were potential investors in a drilling outfit in the Bakken shale oil fields.
Prosecutors plan to argue Henrikson hired Timothy Suckow, an ex-convict living in Spokane Valley, to kill and bury Clarke near Watford City, North Dakota, in 2012, and to kill Carlile when the South Hill man’s involvement in the company jeopardized profits.
Salvador Mendoza, the U.S. District Court judge assigned to the case, ruled just last week that the statements made by a jailhouse informant about an alleged jail escape last spring by Henrikson could not be admitted at trial. The informant said Henrikson offered to pay him to help in an escape from a jail transport van using guns, grenades and squirt guns full of gasoline, according to court records.
Henrikson’s lawyers called these claims “beyond belief.”
Jail staff have to weigh the legal protections of inmates with the necessity for public safety, O’Quinn said. The National Institute of Corrections will soon be reviewing practices at the Spokane County Jail, producing a report that she hopes will improve procedures at the aging, overcrowded facility.
“Anytime you have situations like this occur, it always raises a red flag and makes you want to dive deep,” she said.
Officials did not correct reports naming Henrikson as the potential jail-breaker, and a phone call to Henrikson’s Seattle-based attorney, Todd Maybrown, was not returned Thursday.