Columbia County officials investigating how jail escape happened

By Jim Piggott, General assignment reporter, jpiggott@wjxt.com
Published On: May 09 2014 04:42:16 PM EDT
Updated On: May 09 2014 08:07:07 PM EDT

VIDEO: Scrutiny over what went on inside the Columbia County Jail that made it possible for a now recaptured prisoner to escape. Steve Roberts appeared in a Duval County courtroom and is being held without bond. This wasn’t his first escape, he got out of the St. Johns County jail in 1997.

LAKE CITY, Fla. -

The Jacksonville man who appears to be making a career out of jail escapes made a first appearance in Duval County court Friday.

Steve Roberts is now in the Duval County jail, being held without bond. He was arrested in Jacksonville on Thursday after escaping from the Columbia County jail, where he was being held awaiting trial.

Detectives also learned that Roberts has escaped from jail before -- in St. Johns County in 1997.

A spokesman in Columbia County said deputies should have known Roberts had previously escaped if they followed proper procedure. An investigation is now underway to see if that's the case, as well as an internal investigation as to how the latest escape happened.

Roberts doesn't face escape charges in Jacksonville but is being held on failure to appear charges for previous crimes in the River City.

He will have to answer to those charges before being transferred back to Lake City, where he escaped.

Deputies in Columbia County believe Roberts escaped Tuesday night by climbing though ductwork and then forcing off a vent cover.

"Anytime you have an incident like this, you look at everything," said Murray Smith, of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. "At this point, we have an internal investigation going on and a criminal investigation. The internal investigation deals with policy procedures, what our personnel were doing and the equipment at the jail."

St Johns County officials said they learned a great deal when Roberts and two other inmates escaped from their jail in 1997 by pounding on a door and breaking a lock, then jumping a fence around the jail.

"We corrected those issues many years ago, and it's not been an issue since," Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan said.

In Duval County, police are keeping a close watch on Roberts and say he is not being left alone. Duval has had breakouts of its own in the past. In 1992, three men, including two murder suspects, broke out through a vent and used a ladder to climb down to get away. They were caught after a short time.

That was found to be a building flaw and it's since been corrected.

There have been other bold escapes in Florida. In December in Franklin County, two men walked out of prison by forging documents.

Columbia County officials said this is the first breakout of their facility, and they said this is a top priority for the sheriff to correct.

"You don't want to make a knee-jerk reaction," Smith said. "You don't want to have boom and then make the wrong decision. He is going to take everything and be very methodical about it. Look at everything and then make a decision."

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