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Denmar escapees caught in Richwood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two prison inmates who escaped from the Denmar Correctional Facility in Pocahontas County were captured in the Richwood area Monday morning.

Thomas Pennington and Larry Morehead escaped from the jail about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. State Police, Pocahontas County sheriff's deputies, officers for the Division of Natural Resources and state corrections officers were searching for the men.

State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said the men apparently used string and a piece of metal to hold down razor wire around the jail perimeter and escape. He said authorities searched the woods in the area and set up roadblocks to try to catch the escapees.

"We're using any tactics we can, including helicopters and including dogs," he said just before the men were caught.

Baylous said dogs were able to track the men to U.S. 219 near Hillsboro, where the trail went cold. Police think Morehead and Pennington may have then gotten into a car.

"We think it's very likely they had outside help," he said. "We think they had a ride waiting for them."

He said troopers from the State Police detachment in Richwood got a tip the men were seen walking along W.Va. 39 and went to investigate. Morehead and Pennington were captured following a short foot chase near Fenwick, he said.

The two were to be taken to Mount Olive Correctional Complex, a maximum-security prison, put in a segregated unit for high-risk inmates and charged with felony escape, said state Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein.

Investigators were at the Denmar prison Monday reviewing video footage, the layout of the facility and possible escape routes the prisoners might have taken. Corrections officials believe the men escaped through a window in a bathroom or the housing quarters, Rubenstein said.

The men were identified as missing during one of the head counts, he said. A report is being prepared to find out what went wrong. Officials will interview jail staff, State Police, other inmates at the facility and Pennington and Morehead, Rubenstein said. The facility has about 80 on staff, according to Rubenstein.

The medium-security facility, which used to be Denmar Hospital, has 216 beds -- but no bars on windows or cells, he said.

Rubenstein said he could only recall one other escape from the facility since it opened about 20 years ago. Denmar usually takes prisoners who have exhibited good behavior in other facilities.

"Neither one of these individuals had any type of lengthy disciplinary history. Pennington had been in our system for 14 years and neither of their histories would identify them as an escape risk," Rubenstein said.

In 1998, Pennington, 40, previously of St. Albans, was found guilty in Kanawha Circuit Court of murdering his male lover. Jurors attached a recommendation of mercy to their first-degree guilty verdict

According to previous reports, Pennington shot 47-year-old George Russell Owens of Marion, S.C., twice in the head and burned his vehicle in February 1997. Owens' body was found in a shallow grave at a South Charleston dump.

Pennington told police that Owens became obsessive and would make trips to the Charleston area to follow him and his wife. Jurors also found Pennington guilty of third-degree arson for setting fire to Owens' vehicle. Morehead, 48, was serving a sentence for sexual assault in Nicholas County.

Assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Tera Salango has been fearful for several years of an inmate escaping from Denmar, she said Monday.

Salango recalled driving to the facility about three years ago to testify at Dale Guthrie's parole hearing. Guthrie was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Salango's brother, Todd Farley, in 1993.

"I remember the windows were open on the upper floors," Salango said Monday. "You could see the curtains blowing in the wind. I remember thinking it didn't feel like a prison where a convicted murderer should be housed."

Guthrie has since been moved to Huttonsville Correctional Center, according to the Division of Corrections website.

Rubenstein said he understands when the agency is criticized for its decisions.

"Over the years, we've made tweaks to our classification system and we are very cautious in our moves and in our placements," he said. "I realize the nature of the division of corrections is that we can be open to criticism as far as those movements occur, but we've got a system that is full right now and quite a few who have been sentenced sitting in the regional jails awaiting placement.

"It's not that we just make movements for the sake of placing somebody. We take a number of factors into consideration."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215. Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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