This image of Michael David Elliot was taken from a surveillance camera at the gas station where the escaped prisoner and his hostage stopped. (LaGrange County Sheriff's Office)
Union officials say a quadruple murderer’s escape from prison was made easier because guard towers are now empty to save money. Prison officials wonder if guards were distracted by the Super Bowl.
Whatever the case, Michael David Elliot, 40, was able to walk past multiple cameras and guards as he made a bold break from Ionia Correctional Facility on Sunday.
Elliot never showed up for dinner. He blended into the snow by wearing a white kitchen uniform. He spent an hour opening a fence with his bare hands; it should have electrocuted him. He set off no motion sensors or alarms and, at one point, was 20 feet from an armed guard patrolling the perimeter.
And no one noticed the medium-security inmate was missing for at least 2½ hours after he escaped.
“I don’t think we can just point to one thing,” said Russ Marlan, spokesman for Michigan prisons. “It’s our job to keep prisoners inside correctional facilities. On Sunday, that did not occur and we need to find out why.”
Gov. Rick Snyder has ordered an investigation into the escape of Elliot, who was 20 years into a life sentence for killing four people.
He was caught Monday night about 150 miles away in LaPorte County, Ind., after stealing three cars and carjacking a woman during a manhunt.
Among other things, state officials are investigating whether guards violated rules and were distracted by watching the Super Bowl. Surveillance video shows Elliot escaping between 6 and 7 p.m. — about the start of the game — but he wasn’t discovered missing until 9:30 p.m.
“He was incarcerated at Ionia for five years, watched staff routines and paid attention to our security systems and he chose Super Bowl Sunday during the game to make his escape,” Marlan said. “We are going to look to see if that was intentional ... whether he calculated that staff was distracted by the Super Bowl.”
Union officials said budget cuts have sacrificed safety at Ionia, which houses about 670 maximum and medium security inmates. Last year, state officials eliminated armed guards in the towers. In April 2012, the state got rid of around-the-clock patrols outside the prison and replaced them with random checks.
“Those are the first and last lines of defense, and the state got rid of them to save money,” said Tom Tylutki, president of the 7,500-member Michigan Corrections Organization union that represents guards and other workers. “Our protests fell on deaf ears … It’s our job to protect people, but without the tools to do so, this stuff is bound to happen.”
Staffing, security questions
Marlan said a guard was randomly patrolling outside the prison around the time of Elliot’s escape, and twice went by as he was cutting holes in the exterior fence. Marlan added that he doesn’t believe guards or other inmates aided in the escape.
The state stopped staffing towers in most prisons in 2005, Marlan said, because technology has improved and it’s expensive to staff them 24 hours a day. He doubted staffing them would have prevented the escape.
“(Elliot) studied the security systems. He exploited a vulnerability in the fencings (and) in the alarms,” Marlan said. “Still, there were officers working at that facility that evening, in the yard, in the housing unit, in the chow hall and circling the facility.”
Six weeks ago, another Ionia inmate almost escaped using similar tactics, according to the union. The convicted armed robber was caught when he tripped an alarm in a buffer zone between an interior fence and a 12-foot one wrapped with concertina wire.
“Obviously, there is a problem with the fences,” Tylutki said.
Marlan said the system worked because that escape was thwarted. He declined to discuss specific security measures at the prison, such as which fences are electrified.
The union has picketed at Ionia over the cutbacks and purchased billboards and advertisements in local newspapers over the security cuts.
The mother of one Elliot victim, Dorothy Tufnell, said it’s shocking the inmate was able to escape. Elliot shot Michael Tufnell, 33, in the eye and used his body as “target practice” in 1993, Dorothy Tufnell said.
Elliot was convicted in 1994 of killing four people at a rented house in Bentley Township near Midland and setting it ablaze. Three others also were convicted.
“It is very strange that he could by hand push the fence away and get out,” Tufnell said. “They need to look at how easy it is to get out of there.”
Ionia Mayor Dan Balice said the escape “absolutely rocked everybody’s world.” He said the state should re-evaluate budget cuts and consider staffing guard towers again.
“It is upsetting that prison guards’ concerns were ignored,” added Ionia County Commissioner Lynn Mason, a Democrat who is campaigning for state representative. “The Lansing bureaucracy needs to listen to the people when they warn us about situations in our workplaces.”
Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall, said in an email that “prison escapes have happened in years when the budget goes up and in years when the budget goes down.”
“The House Democrats want people to believe that more money is the answer,” he said. “If that were the case, then the budget increases over the past two years would have solved the problem.”
During his escape, Elliot carjacked Cheryl Van Wormer of Belding in her Jeep Liberty. She escaped by secretly calling 911 while he pumped gas at a station in Middlebury, Ind., at 11:50 p.m. Sunday. Dispatcher Heather Lock advised her to tell Elliot she had to use the bathroom and keep the call live. Van Wormer holed up in a restroom.
Lock, a dispatcher in Lagrange County for three years, told WSBT-TV in South Bend that she was surprised at how calm Van Wormer was.
“I feel blessed and honored that I was the one that could take the phone call and to help her because that’s what I enjoy doing. I enjoy helping the community and helping individuals,” she said.
Elliot fled the gas station in Van Wormer’s Jeep; he later stole two more vehicles before crashing into a two-foot snowbank and surrendering. Van Wormer returned home mid-day Monday and is “understandably shook up,” said her son, Michael Van Wormer.
“I was very proud of her being calm and collected,” he told The News. “Anyone else in her situation probably wouldn’t have been acting like that.”
Elliot faces kidnapping and other charges and is fighting extradition to Michigan.
Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.