Sixteen years after infamous jailbreak, escapee brought back to Sampson

By Chris Berendt - [email protected]
Melvin -

One of four men who escaped from the old Sampson County Jail in downtown Clinton 16 years ago was extradited back to Clinton this week to finally face charges in the jailbreak that shook up this community and led to serious discussions about the safety ramifications of operating a 50-year-old dilapidated facility.

David Earl Melvin, 39, whose address is listed as Alexander Lane, Clinton, was charged Thursday with escaping a local jail in Sampson, stemming from a warrant dated April 22, 2002. Melvin was also served a warrant for fleeing to elude arrest with a motor vehicle, issued by Cumberland County just days after the escape.

Additionally, Melvin was charged in Sampson with two counts of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, stemming from warrants taken out in 1999 and 2001, as well as failure to appear on charges of assault by pointing a gun, driving while license revoked and possession of marijuana up to half an ounce.

He was placed in the Sampson County Detention Center under $33,700 secured bond and given a court date of April 20. Melvin was still being kept in the Sampson County Detention Center on Friday.

Melvin, then 23 years old, was one of four inmates who escaped from the old jail on Vance Street back on April 21, 2002. Jose Anunciacion Herrera, then 32 years old, Renee Zamora, then 31, and Leonard Garcia, then 19, were the three others. They were being held for various crimes, from drugs to robbery with a dangerous weapon and kidnapping, at the time of the escape.

According to previous The Sampson Independent reports, the four inmates — they ranged from 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-6 — gained access to a catwalk after cutting through the cell bars using a piece of a hacksaw blade. They removed an air conditioning unit, fashioned several blankets into a makeshift rope and used it to scale down the wall. At that point, they climbed over an 8-foot-tall chain link fence topped with razor wire and made their getaway.

Melvin fled to Florida after his escape and was captured there after committing felony crimes in Polk County, Fla., in August 2002. He was convicted in November 2003 on three counts of robbery with a deadly weapon and one count of burglary. A fourth robbery count, for which he was also convicted, predated the Sampson escape. He served more than 14 years in prison.

Prior to Melvin’s release from the Florida Department of Corrections, authorities there contacted Sampson in reference to the outstanding escape charges and other offenses. He was subsequently extradited back to Sampson and served this week.

He was actually being held at the Sampson jail without bond at the time of the jailbreak, facing a felony hit-and-run charge and being detained for being a fugitive out of Florida due to a 2001 robbery offense.

Court records show Melvin had a lengthy criminal record in Sampson from 1995-1999 prior to the one that landed him behind bars in 2002. He was convicted of numerous offenses, including multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, common law robbery, larceny, possession of stolen goods and possession of a Schedule II controlled substance.

Similarly, Garcia, whose alias is Pablo Baltazar, had been sentenced on drug trafficking charges less than a week prior to the escape. He was awaiting a transfer to the N.C. Department of Corrections, where he was to serve five and a half years behind bars. While on the lam, Garcia was linked to more drug trafficking in Greene County in October 2003 and a killing in Lenoir County in March 2005.

He was ultimately convicted in 2008 of manslaughter, drug trafficking, possession of firearm by a felon and the escape jail by felon charge in Sampson. The N.C. Department of Public Safety lists a total incarceration term of more than 24 years, but notes a projected release date in 2022.

Zamora, known as “Kilo man,” was being held under $1 million bond at the time of his escape, stemming from a drug trafficking charges leveled in December 2001. N.C. court records also show that Zamora was convicted in March 2004 of cocaine trafficking and possession with intent to sell a Schedule II controlled substance. Zamora served close to six years in prison and was released in 2010. There is no record of a conviction for the jail escape.

Herrera still stands charged with first-degree burglary, robbery with a dangerous weapon, two counts of second degree kidnapping and larceny of a motor vehicle. Sixteen years later, he is still on the loose.

“Herrera has never been apprehended,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Marcus Smith, “but we are still looking him.”

The 2002 escape occurred in the final year of Sheriff Buck McCullen’s tenure. In the wake of the incident, McCullen called the old jail issues, coupled with the unsuccessful push for a new facility, the “biggest headache” of his job and cited that as a primary reason he did not seek reelection. Chief jailer Capt. Bob Barbour stepped down the day after the jailbreak, stating that “dealing with the security issues in the jail and being concerned about the safety of the jailers has pushed me to the limit.” He returned a short time later at the behest of McCullen and others.

Current Sheriff Jimmy Thornton was elected to the first of four terms at the end of 2002, one of his key platforms being the construction of a new jail. The old jail ultimately gave way in 2007 to a brand-new $11 million state-of-the-art Detention Center on Fontana Street, well away from the crowded downtown site, which was converted by the City of Clinton in recent years to increased parking and green space.

Sixteen years after jailbreak, man faces charges

By Chris Berendt

[email protected]

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.