Surveillance cameras captured inmate Michael Burham escape from a northwestern Pennsylvania jail last week, Warren County Commissioner Jeff Eggleston said at a news conference Wednesday.
Burham was in the recreation yard — a 40-foot by 40-foot space on the top floor — of the Warren County Jail last Thursday with three other inmates. They were watched on video, according to Eggleston, who said it was the scheduled time for the gym.
“By the time he got off the roof he was faster than anyone could respond to get into the room,” Eggleston said. It took only seconds for Burham to climb onto the training equipment, pass through the chain link roof, drop to the permanent roof and then rappel down from the top of the building on the sheet rope, the commissioner said later.
The alarm was raised by a corrections officer who was watching video of Burham’s escape, Eggleston said.
Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said at a news conference with law enforcement officials that they are investigating reports that there was a drone immediately adjacent to the prison at the time of the late-night escape.
“I don’t really believe in coincidences,” he said, before adding that there may be an innocent explanation for a drone being near the building.
Authorities said Tuesday’s evidence leads them to believe Burham is still in the area and could be getting help in his attempt to elude the 200 law enforcement officers who are searching for him.
When asked Wednesday if investigators had interviewed any possible accomplices, Bivens said simply, “Yes.”
Burham was described as armed and dangerous. He has military reserve experience and possesses survival skills, officials said. He was in jail in connection with an arson and burglary case and was a homicide suspect.
Bivens told reporters Wednesday, “We have additional information that we have recently gathered that gives me additional concern that he may be armed.”
The prison’s operations and conditions are under review.
“Be assured that Warren County is conducting a thorough internal investigation,” Warren County Commissioner Ben Kafferlin told reporters. “We’re reviewing every second of video surveillance, taking statements, reviewing time stamps, tagging sheets and interviewing every person who might have information, whether they’re in or out of jail.”
Eggleston explained in even more detail how Burham escaped. The beams holding the chain link fence above the recreation yard were broken, creating holes through which he could escape.
The prison is regularly evaluated by the Department of Corrections.
“We have already discussed and will allocate money to expand the security on that roof complex and the deterrence associated with it,” Eggleston said. “Believe me, no one will ever think of trying to get out of there again.”
Eggleston declined many questions about any involvement of jail staff, repeatedly saying it was part of the criminal investigation.
The Warren County Commissioners are responsible for the budget associated with the jail and also serve on the jail board that sets policy for the jail. Commissioners are also responsible for prison staff.
This is the first successful jailbreak, Eggleston said, despite several other attempts.
“We are not on a witch hunt, but we will seek justice, including if that means with our employees,” Kafferlin said. Pennsylvania law requires them to keep any staff disciplinary actions confidential, the commissioner added.
There was no shortage of staff at the time. 48 guards are employed in the prison.
At the time of Burham’s escape, the prison housed 87 inmates. The facility can accommodate up to 140 inmates.
Warren County is located in northern Pennsylvania, not far from the New York border. The town of Warren is right next to the Allegheny National Forest.
Bivens, who said Tuesday that none of the sightings reported by Burham were successful, told reporters Wednesday, “There are sightings that we believe are accurate.”
They are waiting for test results to increase their confidence that the witnesses actually saw Burham, he added.
Officials said they found things they believe are related to him.
“We continue to find items. Those lead me to believe there’s still a likelihood he’s here,” Bivens told reporters Tuesday, without elaborating. Some of those items were found in the last 24 hours, he said. “I’m also looking at the absence of evidence that he went elsewhere.”
Bivens said Wednesday they found more items that day.
Authorities also went to cabins and other buildings that were apparently broken into, but there is still no DNA evidence that Burham was there during the more than five days on the run.