Authorities have launched a manhunt for Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who were mistakenly freed from a Panhandle prison within the last month. Both men were serving life in prison but were let go when authorities said forged paperwork duped the Corrections Department and court system and reduced their sentences to 15 years.
Jail spokesman Allen Moore said the men filled out paperwork and were fingerprinted at the jail, which is about 300 miles from Franklin Correctional Institution, where the men had been held. The fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that felons don't have any outstanding warrants, Moore said
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and Walker set free Oct. 8.
It's not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering their release or whether they were related, but authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor's office and judge.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.
Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted the attention of the court clerk's office or the Corrections Department. Namely, it's rare for a judge to order a sentence reduction, and even more uncommon for the request to come from prosecutors.
"One of the things we have never taken a close look at is the verification of a particular document to make sure it's the real McCoy," he said.
Prisoners have had varying success trying to use bogus documents to escape. Many forgeries are discovered early, but there have been cases where inmates walk free.
Jenkins, 34, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man.
State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton said he learned Jenkins had been released when Pugh's family contacted his office. They reviewed the paperwork and found that it was a fake, then notified law enforcement.
Later, they discovered Walker's release documents were also fake. The paperwork also forged prosecutors' signatures, Ashton said.
"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," Ashton said.
Walker, 34, was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County. He told investigators that 23-year-old Cedric Slater was bullying him and he fired three shots intending to scare him.
In a statement, Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said his agency was reviewing records to make sure no other inmates had been released in a similar fashion.
Ashton said another man serving a life sentence for attempting to kill a law enforcement officer was also scheduled to be released using forged documents, but an investigator discovered the scheme before any release.
In 2010, a Wisconsin killer forged documents that shortened his prison sentence and he walked free, only to be captured a week later. In 2012, a prisoner in Pennsylvania was let out with bogus court documents, and the mistake was only discovered months later.
Florida legislators have called for hearings while Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he was focused on the manhunt.
"The first thing you do when something like this happens is solve the problem you have at hand," he said. "We need to apprehend these individuals."
In both cases, the forged paperwork included motions from prosecutors to correct "illegal" sentences, accompanied by orders allegedly filed by Judge Perry.