It only took a few minutes. Using a smuggled toothbrush, convicted armed robbers Donnie Russell Rowe and Ricky Dubose pried the padlock off an unlocked gate in their prisoner transport bus, allegedly killed two guards using the guards’ own Glock pistols and escaped, according to a report released Friday by state prison officials.
The fugitives would spur a massive manhunt before the pair were apprehended in Tennessee almost three days later.
The report marked the first public accounting of what went wrong along a rural stretch of highway in Putnam County before daybreak on June 13. It detailed mistake after mistake.
Those lapses led to the deaths of veteran correctional officers — Sgts. Curtis Billue and Christopher Monica. But the report said those very officers were at fault in several aspects of the case because they did not follow policy.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Greg Dozier said changes have been made and more are planned.
“I’m determined not to allow an event like this to occur again,” Dozier said before leaving a Friday morning news conference without taking questions.
Dozier said he released the 53-page report because he wanted to be “transparent.”
“The officers’ failure to secure the gate was the single greatest point of failure,” the report said. That gate separated the officers from 33 inmates on the prison bus, but Billue and Monica did not lock it that morning.
Dozier said Rowe twice used a toothbrush — which he should not have had — to push a padlock free and get the gate open. The first time was while the bus was at Hancock State Prison picking up 10 inmates. The next time was in the seconds before the escape.
But there were many other mistakes that proved fatal.
The seemingly routine operation to move 33 inmates to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson began in the dark.
There were already 12 offenders from jails in Richmond and Jones counties on the bus when it stopped at Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville to get 11 state prisoners, including Rowe and Dubose.
The inmates on the bus were left unattended for a short while.
The report said two minutes after Dubose and Rowe were put on the bus, Dubose had his hands out of the cuffs, which had not been “double locked” according to procedure. He freed Rowe, and later he freed other inmates.
The bus left Baldwin State Prison for Sparta at 4:53 a.m., long before sunrise.
“The team has not identified an explanation for the bus’ pre-dawn departure,” the report said, referring to the investigation by the GBI, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Natural Resources. “No emergency had been identified and there was no explicit permission from the warden at Baldwin.”
Once at Hancock State Prison, Billue and Monica left the inmates on the bus alone for a second time.
The surveillance camera was recording inmates’ conversations, as well as their movements. They talked about the padlock that was left hanging but not secured.
During the 15 minutes that the inmates on the bus were unsupervised, Rowe and Dubose went into the “officers’ compartment,” ate their lunches, drank their coffee and took their cigarettes to share with other prisoners.
They re-closed the gate minutes before Billue and Monica returned with 10 more prisoners for the trip to Jackson.
“Again, the lock on the gate between the front of the bus and the back of the bus was not secured,” the report said.
As they had before, Billue and Monica had stored their weapons in boxes behind their seats rather than “on their person,” as required by DOC rules.
The two also were not wearing their protective vests. The report said Billue’s “ballistic vest” was in his car at the prison, and investigators retrieved Monica’s “stab vest” from his family.
As the bus drove up Ga. 16 from Sparta to Eatonton, surveillance video showed inmates moving around freely — yet the officers didn’t seem to notice. Only one of the 13 lights in that section of the bus was operating, and investigators said when they later inspected the bus they “could not see through the security screen and Plexiglas over the gate, even in daylight, past the third row.”
The report noted that Monica could still have watched inmates via the video feed to a monitor positioned at the “shotgun” seat. But inmates told investigators Monica slept during portions of the trip. That could not be verified, however, because no surveillance camera was trained on the driver or front-seat passenger.
Road noises and the bus’s engine drowned out inmates’ conversations. “This may have impacted the officers’ ability to overhear offenders’ conversations leading up the the attack and/or their movements in the back of the bus,” the report said.
“Inmate Dubose removed his uniform shirt at 6:24 a.m. and he and Rowe began moving toward the front of the bus shortly thereafter,” the report said. “Rowe removed his belly chain at 6:28 a.m. Rowe began his attempt to reopen the gate between the front and the back of the bus at 6:36 a.m., and most of the other offenders can be seen moving to the back of the bus. Rowe and Dubose breach the gate at 6:39:59 a.m. The officers were attacked and killed with their own weapons within seconds. Dubose and Rowe exited the bus and carjacked a passing motorist at approximately 6:41 a.m.”
Also, the report said, the subsequent search for the two was hampered because Rowe’s prison photo was “out of date and did not reflect his actual appearance.”
The team of DOC staff that conducted the internal review found that some of the same failures that allowed the escapes last month continued even after the two officers were killed.
Inmates to be transported were not properly strip-searched or restrained before they were put on buses.
Officers were not wearing vests. A new rule requires security staff to verify transport officers are wearing vests and have “duty belts” before they leave with a busload of inmates. The rule also requires that gates are locked and prisoners are properly cuffed, with their waist chains running through the belt loops on their pants.
Dozier said the agency was already assigning a “tailing vehicle” to follow prison buses. The agency had begun using padlocks that had to be secured to remove the key. He said cameras were being added to record the officers’ compartment as well.
The escape from the bus spurred a nearly three-day, nationwide manhunt by local, state and federal officers. Rowe and Dubose were described as having “nothing to lose” because both were serving sentences without the possibility of parole.
Rowe, serving life without parole, and Dubose, serving 20 years, were captured the evening of June 15 following a 20-mile chase along I-24 that ended with a crash and a surrender to a homeowner in the rural community of Christiana, Tenn. The prosecutor for Putnam County has said he will seek the death penalty.
ABOUT THAT REWARD
Most of the $130,000 reward offered for help catching fugitives Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe has been handed out, and all of it should be paid soon, officials said.
Since the money came from different entities, its distribution has been piecemeal.
Last month, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation handed out its share of the reward — $20,000. Half went to the elderly couple Dubose and Rowe tied up and allegedly held captive for three hours before they were caught. The couple called police to report a home invasion minutes after the two fugitives left their home in their Jeep and they freed themselves.
The other half of the GBI reward money was paid to the homeowner to whom Debose and Rowe surrendered after almost three days on the lam.
On Friday, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills traveled to Tennessee to pass out the portion of the reward that he had raised, more than $90,000. Sills said $5,000 first went to the driver of the Honda that Dubose and Rowe allegedly carjacked moments after escaping so he could replace his car; the interior of the Honda was essentially destroyed by crime scene technicians.
He said the rest of it was going to be split three ways — to the homeowner, the elderly couple, and the informant who was key to tracking the two to Tennessee even as authorities there were pursing two men they thought at the time had only committed a home invasion.
The FBI has initiated the process for dispensing the remaining $20,000, but the federal bureaucracy takes longer.