JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Authorities were searching Thursday for two convicted murderers missing from a state prison ice plant, where a chilling note left alongside a slain inmate threatened death for anyone attempting to confront the fleeing prisoners.
Law officers searched throughout the capital city while prison officials concentrated on the expansive 47-acre site inside the facility's tall limestone walls. There were no confirmed sightings of the inmates, authorities said at a Thursday evening news conference, nor any proof that the inmates had successfully escaped.
While cautioning residents not to panic, Cole County Sheriff John Hemeyer warned that the slaying and apparent escape attempt was unlike any other in last 30 years at the maximum-security Missouri State Penitentiary.
"This is a serious, serious deal," said Hemeyer, adding: "They left a note saying they would kill anyone who got in the way."
The message contained the initials of convicted murderers Christopher Sims and Shannon Phillips, who both were missing Thursday.
They had been assigned to work Wednesday in the icehouse with inmate Toby Viles, another convicted murder sentenced to life in prison for the 1992 slayings of his three siblings.
Viles was found dead with blunt trauma wounds to his head and neck about 10 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after the scheduled end of his icehouse work shift, said Department of Corrections spokesman Tim Kniest.
The three inmates were the only ones assigned to the ice plant and were not under the direct supervision of a guard, although they were locked in the building and occasionally checked upon, Kniest said.
As part of their work, the inmates routinely used tools such as shovels, hammers and chisels, he said.
Kniest defended the practice of supplying potentially lethal tools to convicted murderers as a routine necessity of operating a prison that depends on inmate labor. All three prisoners had worked in the ice plant for about a year without any problems, Kniest said.
Law officers declined to discuss a potential murder weapon, but they said investigators were reviewing whether any icehouse tools were missing. The roughly 2,000 other inmates have been in lock-down since Viles' body was discovered.
Located barely one-half mile east of the Capitol along the Missouri River, the penitentiary is the oldest continually operated prison west of the Mississippi River, with some of its crumbling outer walls dating to 1836 and a housing unit dating to 1868. The state currently is constructing a replacement prison at different site.
About 200 prison officials, including emergency specialists from five other area prisons, searched for the missing inmates inside the prison complex, which has about 25 buildings and numerous underground steam tunnels.
"We have not found any hard evidence that there was any escape route and these individuals got out," Kniest said. "That's why we're focusing inside."
It's not unprecedented for prisoners to hide within the walls. Several years ago, it took prison officials about a day and a half to find a missing inmate, said Corrections Department spokesman John Fougere.
Hemeyer said law officers wasted precious time and resources Thursday responding to what turned out to be a false sighting outside the prison walls. The woman who made the report has been arrested and will be charged, he said.
Sims, 27, has been in prison since September 1998 on a life sentence for first-degree murder for the Sept. 25, 1997, shooting of Gale Brown in north St. Louis.
Phillips, 35, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder for the Aug. 9, 1995, stabbing and slashing of Charles Brown, who was killed in his Kansas City home after an argument over a bicycle. Phillips has been imprisoned since April 1996.
Viles, who had been in prison since September 1994, was 16 years old when he killed his siblings -- Tabitha Viles, 14, Quincy Viles, 11, and Tristan Viles, 3 -- at their Laclede County home near Lebanon.
All three children were shot with a high-powered rifle while eating ice cream and watching television on March 17, 1992, while their parents were gone. Viles was certified to be tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to the three first-degree murder charges. The state agreed not to seek the death penalty.
The three inmates were scheduled to work from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the icehouse, Kniest said. Sims reported for dinner at 5:30 p.m. but the other two did not, which was not necessarily unusual because inmates sometimes skip meals, he said. A prison staff member talked with Viles over the telephone at 6:10 p.m., Kniest said. Viles was found dead after the three failed to respond to a routine call to return to their housing units.
The last time an inmate was killed at the Missouri State Penitentiary was February 1992, Fougere said. The last inmate to escape -- on Dec. 13, 1986 -- still hasn't been found.