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    Escaped prisoner knew system well

    Jail officials said the escape of the dangerous inmate "was facilitated by human error.''

    By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 5, 2002

    Escaped inmate

    It took officials at the Orient Road Jail in Hillsborough County four hours to realize that David Wiggins had escaped.

    David Wiggins is described as 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair. He is considered dangerous. Anyone with information should call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at 247-8000 or 911.

    TAMPA -- You could call David Wiggins an experienced jail inmate.

    In and out of Hillsborough County jails 31 times in the past 17 years, Wiggins used his vast knowledge of life behind bars to trick deputies and escape from the Orient Road Jail on Wednesday afternoon.

    Wiggins, a 41-year-old attempted murder suspect from Plant City, complained of chest pains and was sent to the clinic, mistakenly unescorted by officers.

    But instead of going to the clinic, he donned an orange and blue jail uniform over his plain orange jumpsuit. Posing as a jail trusty, he made his way to an outdoor work detail with other inmates. He walked through four doors, including two high security ones.

    Then he disappeared.

    Jail officials didn't realize for about four hours that Wiggins had escaped from the 3,500-inmate jail.

    "He was very familiar with the way business is conducted and obviously discovered some flaws in the way we were doing things," said Col. David Parrish, who oversees the jail. "Up until now, he'd never been a management problem."

    Parrish held a news conference on Thursday to explain the escape and appeal for help from the public in finding Wiggins.

    Considered dangerous, Wiggins had not been captured as of Thursday night.

    Many questions remain unanswered about why Wiggins was not escorted when he went to the clinic and how he got access to the uniform, normally reserved for inmates finishing up their jail sentences and assigned to less restrictive work duties.

    But Parrish said a more detailed review of the escape will not be complete until next week and could include disciplinary action against some jail employees.

    "His escape was facilitated by human error," Parrish said.

    The escape was the third in the jail's 12-year history, not the second, as officials originally said Wednesday.

    In 1996, Wiggins, who listed himself as a tree surgeon on jail records, was the key witness against a fellow inmate who was convicted of plotting to kill then-prosecutor Leland Baldwin.

    Thursday, Baldwin said she was "incredibly surprised" that Wiggins escaped from the jail, a facility she considered very secure.

    "It definitely worries me for a lot of reasons," said Baldwin, who is now in private practice.

    Wiggins was jailed most recently on March 27 after a car chase with deputies. He was arrested and booked on 13 charges, including attempted murder.

    Most of his charges before that were for property crimes, such as grand theft and writing bad checks.

    Hillsborough County Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the attempted murder charge stemmed from a fight Wiggins had the evening of March 23 with his live-in girlfriend, Lois Terrell.

    The two had been talking about bills when their discussion turned into a fight, she said.

    Wiggins allegedly "punched her, kicked her and tried to strangle her utilizing a stick," Carter said.

    By the time deputies arrived, Wiggins was gone. But deputies saw his car four days later and chased him until he crashed in eastern Hillsborough County.

    At the jail, problems didn't arise until about 3 p.m. Wednesday, when Wiggins requested a clinic visit. During a 6 p.m. head count, a deputy discovered his absence.

    The jail was locked down as officers searched for Wiggins and checked all inmate wristbands. They didn't realize Wiggins had escaped until 8:19 p.m.

    Several deputies said they saw Wiggins sweeping up in the outdoor transportation area of the jail about 4 p.m.

    "That was actually the last time we were able to eyeball him," Parrish said. "By that time, he was not working inside the secure perimeter of the facility."

    On Wednesday, his girlfriend was notified of the escape.

    Dozens of deputies are now searching for Wiggins.

    "We're going to spend a lot of time and effort to make sure it doesn't happen again," Parrish said. "There's no such thing as an escape-proof facility. As long as we're dealing with human beings, we're going to make mistakes.

    "Our job is to minimize them."

    -- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or

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