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Killers Escaped Overcrowded Jail

Bowie, Texas, police officers inspect a tractor-trailer rig on Highway 59 in the search for four escapees from the Montague County Jail Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002. A nationwide manhunt continued Tuesday after the late-night jail break of two men convicted in a high-profile cheerleader murder and two inmates charged with killing an elderly couple.
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The escape of two convicted killers and two murder suspects who overpowered a jail guard with a homemade knife has raised questions about security and overcrowding in a corrections system that had more than 100 escapes last year.

The FBI, Texas Rangers and local police were still searching Wednesday for the four fugitives who escaped Monday from a north Texas jail. Two had been serving life sentences for killing a teen-age girl.

"There's no question in my mind they'll arm themselves at the first opportunity," Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said. "The two men with life sentences just have absolutely nothing to lose."

The Montague County Jail has been uncertified since October for being overpopulated and understaffed, according to the Texas state Commission on Jail Standards.

Eight inmates had just been transferred to another county Monday, bringing the jail's population down to 47, said Terry Julian, executive director of the commission. He said that brought it to within state staffing requirements.

"There's a real overcrowding problem here, but that's no excuse for lousy security," Cole said.

Montague County Sheriff Chris Hamilton said he would reassess the jail's security measures after the fugitives were caught.

John Christmas, the stepfather of fugitive Chrystal Gale Soto, called Montague County jailers "pretty inept" and said Tuesday he was not surprised that a breakout occurred.

The fugitives were identified as Curtis Gambill of Terral, Okla.; Joshua Bagwell of Waurika, Okla.; and Soto, 22, and Charles Jordan, 30, of Bowie, Texas.

Authorities have been alerted in states where the fugitives have relatives and friends, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Oregon and Alaska.

Gambill and Bagwell were sentenced to life for killing a 16-year-old Oklahoma cheerleader in Montague County in 1996. Soto and Jordan are charged with two counts of capital murder in the November deaths of James Christmas, 76, and Ullain Christmas, 79.

In Oklahoma, Jefferson County Sheriff Stan Barnes set up checkpoints on every bridge crossing the Red River into the county from Texas.

Gambill and Bagwell "were raised here and been on the river all their lives," Barnes said. "We feel strongly that they will eventually try to come here. They are going to get hungry."

Gambill and Jordan used a knife to overpower a jailer when she opened their cell on Monday night, authorities say. They forced her and another jailer to release Bagwell and Soto, and the inmates walked out the back door and stole a jailer's vehicle, Cole said.

Bruce Martin, an attorney representing Jordan, said he hopes his client surrenders at his law office.

"That's probably the only way he won't be killed," Martin said. "If he's found on the street, someone's going to kill him."

Gambill, Bagwell and one other man were convicted of murder in the October 1996 death of Heather Rose Rich. They thought she might accuse them orape after a night of drinking, so they shot her nine times and dumped her body into a creek.

Earlier this month, Gambill and Bagwell were transported from state prison to Montague County Jail for Gambill's murder conspiracy trial in connection with the Rich case. Gambill recently was sentenced to a second life prison term.

During a courtroom appearance in 1997, Gambill had to be restrained after he attacked a bailiff. Martin, who represented Gambill at the time, said his former client was "tremendously volatile" and aggressive.

Meanwhile, some crime victim advocacy groups are urging officials to solve jail security problems, saying criminals are becoming more brazen after seeing so many successful escapes.

Statewide, the Texas state Commission on Jail Standards counted more than 100 jail breaks last year.

"The public has to take (corrections) seriously instead of thinking of it as a nonessential element in the system," said Dianne Clements, president of Houston-based Justice for All. "I think it requires ongoing training. You have to keep them alert and ready to act."

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