Jail guard charged in aiding escapeInmate told officer `this was the night,' prosecutors allege
Thursday, February 16, 2006
by Jeff Coen and Mickey Ciokajlo
The Cook County Jail guard accused of helping six inmates escape from a maximum-security division Saturday was told by an inmate "this was the night" and took steps to aid the escape, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The moment was right because Darin Gater was the only guard watching 16 inmates in an area of Division 1 set aside for those with discipline problems, prosecutors said during Gater's first court hearing.
Criminal Court Judge Raymond Myles set bail for Gater at $500,000. The guard's family bonded him out late Wednesday after he had spent just a few hours in jail.
Gater is alleged to have told authorities he aided the escape for political reasons, hoping it would embarrass Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and his chief of staff, who is running for the post, and give a b oost to candidate Richard Remus. Investigators were said to be continuing to determine whether he acted alone or as part of a ring of rogue guards.
Two other people were charged Wednesday in connection with the escape plot--the brother and sister of Francisco Romero, who was one of the inmates to escape. Judge Raymond Myles ordered Jose Romero held in lieu of $250,000 bail and ordered Anna Romero held in lieu of $350,000, on charges of aiding an escape.
Assistant State's Atty. David Navarro said Anna Romero received a phone call at about 5 a.m. Sunday, after the inmates had escaped a few hours earlier. She and an unidentified person allegedly drove her brother, Francisco, as well as three of the other escaped inmates away from the 2900 block of West 25th Street.
Defense lawyers for Gater said he maintains his innocence and that his alleged statements were coerced during the two days he spent being questioned without a lawyer. They called the possible political m otive ridiculous.
"Any admission he made was coerced, and we're going to attack it," said attorney Steven Watkins, adding that his client should be viewed as a victim who was overpowered by the inmates.
Gater is facing a range of charges under the theory that he was responsible for the escape. He is also charged with official misconduct.
As they outlined how the escape took place, prosecutors said Gater, a member of an elite group of guards called the Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, allegedly carried into the tier his cell phone and the keys that unlocked a SORT command post. Before midnight, Gater allowed an inmate to shower, Assistant State's Atty. Jim Knibbs told Judge Myles, and a quick series of events unfolded.
Knibbs said Gater handcuffed himself. The inmate unlocked the tier's cells from a control panel, took Gater's keys and put on his uniform, Knibbs said.
The inmates fought their way past two other officers, made it outside and went over a fence onto 26th Street, prosecutors said. They have all been recaptured.
In statements to authorities, Gater said he was approached about the plan by another guard, sources close to the case said. Six guards, including a sergeant who was supposed to be supervising the area, have been suspended.
Police said that they learned of the plot hours before it happened on Saturday from a man who knew one of the inmates. Police forwarded the information to sheriff's police, and eventually it was given to the sergeant who now is suspended, authorities have said.
The sergeant was not on duty at the time of the jailbreak.
Some law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation did not learn until Tuesday that a guard working in Division 1 that night might have known an escape was coming before it happened. Sheriff Sheahan on Wednesday that said his office's handling of the tip remained under investigation.
Sheahan also stood by the allegation that Gater said his motive was political. He said Gater gave a signed statement at about 4:45 p.m. Sunday.
"He signed a statement and he basically said ... that if the escape occurred it would make the county look bad," Sheahan said, "and it would influence the race for sheriff and would lead to the election of a candidate that I wasn't supporting."
Sheahan said the allegation from Gater's lawyer that the statement was coerced was "nonsense."