From the beginning of their jail break last week, Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen was sure that inmates Dallas Derrick and Jason Braham had wasted little time getting as far away from Vernal as possible.
But Nebraska? That's where the two were finally arrested Sunday morning as they walked away from a stolen vehicle that had broken down on an overpass just east of downtown Lincoln 800 miles east of where they began their bid for freedom.
"Oh, yeah, that kind of surprised us all right," Laursen said Monday. "We thought they might drive into Wyoming and just hunker down for a while, but they made it to Nebraska, and it looks like they would have gone further" if they had not been arrested.
A Lancaster County sheriff's deputy stopped the duo about 8:45 a.m. Sunday, thinking he was assisting two stranded motorists. But a check of the vehicle showed it had just been stolen in Lincoln. Further investigation revealed the pair had escaped from eastern Utah's Uintah County Jail.
The Chevrolet pickup they allegedly took in Lincoln was believed to be the fifth vehicle Derrick, 31, and Braham, 21, had purloined all of them reportedly found with the keys in their ignitions. Shortly after breaking through venting from the jail's laundry room, the two had stolen a Chevrolet Tahoe parked outside a home half a mile away in Vernal. That vehicle ran out of gas in Wyoming, and the two found another to take, then another, before their fateful breakdown in Nebraska.
"One of the things they told [Nebraska deputies]," Laursen said, "was that, 'People need to just take their keys out of their cars.' We [in law enforcement] say that all the time, but this was from the crooks."
When arrested, the two men were found with a wallet full of assorted identities, an MP3 player and a backpack stolen out of the bed of another pickup in Lincoln while the owner was inside eating at a restaurant Saturday.
The two were in Lancaster County Jail on Monday, being held without bail as they awaited extradition to Utah.
Laursen said he would not be surprised if the inmates fight a return to Utah, but he was confident they eventually would be back behind bars in the Beehive State, if not in the Uintah County Jail where a major security review was ongoing then the Utah State Prison. Derrick and Braham had been in the Vernal jail under a contract with the Utah Department of Corrections; Uintah County Jail houses 27 other state inmates under similar arrangements.
Laursen said the jail has made quick upgrades to the laundry area and venting through which the duo escaped late last Wednesday night, adding barriers and security screens "that you couldn't pull down with a Sherman tank." In addition, head counts formerly done once during the day and once during the evening, with officers going into cells to confirm inmate presence were now being done hourly. Formerly, in addition to the two head counts, jailers did more frequent checks by monitors or looking through cell windows.
Six jail staffers were on duty the night the inmates fled, right after a head count, while they were working their assigned duties in the prison laundry. "We are definitely evaluating things that happened that night," Laursen said, adding that the probe was ongoing and no conclusions had been made.
Derrick was serving a sentence for second-degree felony burglary, third-degree felony theft, third-degree felony possession and/or use of a controlled substance, third-degree felony failure to stop or respond at the command of police, and class A misdemeanor child abuse. Braham was behind bars for second-degree felony burglary, second-degree felony theft, third-degree felony theft, third-degree felony burglary and class B misdemeanor theft.
Laursen said the pair are likely to face lengthened prison sentences when the escape and car theft spree are added to their records.
"Once they are extradited," he said, "they are probably looking at another four to five years."