By Greg Ritchie
HOUSTON COUNTY – The recent escape of an inmate at the Houston County Jail had residents worried – and law enforcement busy.
The escapee, Miguel Alejandro Zuniga was being held in the jail waiting transfer to a state penitentiary. He faced minor drug possession charges – probably about six months and he would be free.
He was working as a trustee in the jail, helping do odd jobs to keep the facilities clean. The trustees are vetted carefully before they are trusted to move around the jail with a jailer’s supervision. Houston County Sheriff Randy Hargrove explained the trustee program is an important part of the jail.
“We are very careful in choosing a trustee,” Hargrove said. “We look at what they are charged with – what kind of time they might be facing. Anyone facing a felony and ’25 to life’ is not going to be a trustee. We look at their behavior here – how they interact with people in the cells. They do janitorial and maintenance work. It saves the taxpayers a lot of money – the trustee program that the inmates volunteer for. We don’t force them to do anything.”
At around 1 a.m. early Sept. 7, Zuniga and another inmate were cleaning the floor near the front entrance. A jailer from the sheriff’s office was supervising. The sheriff is still investigating the exact sequence of events. At one point, the jailer became distracted while Zuniga hid behind a vending machine. Zuniga tore off his jail uniform and ran out the door into the night.
The jailer now faced a dilemma – go after Zuniga or stay with the other inmate to make sure there would not be further escapes.
When Hargrove got word of the escape, he lost no time in getting the word out. Crockett Independent School District (CISD) John Emerich was one of those to receive the early morning call. Emerich said he and law enforcement made the determination that there was no threat to schools and they could open as normal – but with extra precautions.
“I only had one complaint – no one appreciated being woken up at three o’clock in the morning!” Hargrove said. “But better an early phone call than a much worse problem.”
Hargrove gathered his team and the search was on. He posted about the escape at 4 a.m. in the morning. It wasn’t just the sheriff’s office on the hunt. All of the county – and surrounding counties – were out looking for Zuniga and his girlfriend and accomplice, Melissa Pearl Ortiz.
“In Houston County, all the law enforcement agencies work together – that’s just the way we do it. It makes these kind of incidences so smooth because you have that willingness to work together. It gives us more people and more resources to work with,” Hargrove explained. “We also brought a Texas Ranger in to help along with the DPS (Department of Public Safety). Heath Murff and The Office of Emergency Management helped out too by sending out an alert to the citizens to be on the lookout.”
Hargrove and the team started the search locally and worked their way outward.
“We checked with their family members here and searched some houses, but it didn’t appear that they had anything to do with helping them escape,” Hargrove said.
Hargrove was not able to reveal all of the information gathered, but he knew Ortiz was involved in helping Zuniga – if not in the actual escape – certainly in the flight that followed.
Hargrove told the community Zuniga had been arrested by the local police department in Corsicana around 2:30 p.m.
“We were a little surprised that they made it to Corsicana. Because they had no money and no vehicle. They had to depend on someone else to take them there,” Hargrove said. “They were familiar with Corsicana. Zuniga knew the area. I got a tip about the location of the girlfriend and called Corsicana Police Department who apprehended her, which led to the arrest of Zuniga.”
Hargrove was relived the situation was resolved so quickly. The relationships his office have built with other law enforcement agencies in the state led to the quick recapture.
Now Hargrove must take on the investigation of how Zuniga was able to escape – and what changes may need to be made.
“We have to make a report to the jail commission when something like this happens. They want to know if the incident was avoidable. If so, they want to know what we will do to keep it from happening again,” Hargrove said. “This has never been a problem here, even before my time. But in the future, no trustees will be working in the front office after 5 p.m.”
Hargrove himself is still puzzled about Zuniga’s motivations for trying to escape in the first place. One of the reasons Zuniga was allowed to be a trustee was precisely the fact the he seemingly had no good reason to try something so illogical.
“That’s the crazy thing about it. He had a drug conviction and he got state jail time – probably 180 days. He would have been out in six months. Now he’s facing maybe 15 years. She is now facing charges, too,” Hargrove said as he shook his head. “What was he thinking? Anyone in their right mind facing only six months would be crazy to try and escape.”
Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]