Search on for two state prison inmates after another found dead

Friday, October 24, 2003

Associated Press WriterJEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Two convicted murderers continued to elude an intense search in and around the Missouri State Penitentiary, where they disappeared after leaving a note next to a dead inmate threatening to kill anyone who tried to confront them.

The search for Christopher Sims and Shannon Phillips began Wednesday night, after prison officials found the body of inmate Toby Viles inside the prison's ice plant. The threatening note found beside Viles' body contained Sims' and Phillips' initials.

Cole County Sheriff John Hemeyer said the inmates' escape was unlike any other in the last 30 years at the maximum-security prison.

"This is a serious, serious deal," said Hemeyer, adding: "They left a note saying they would kill anyone who got in the way."

Law officers searched throughout the capital city while prison officials concentrated on the expansive 47-acre site inside the prison's tall limestone walls. There were no confirmed sightings of the inmates, nor any proof that the inmates had successfully escaped.

Viles, another convicted murderer sentenced to life in prison for the 1992 slayings of his three siblings, 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 used tools such as shovels, hammers and chisels, he said.

Kniest said supplying potentially lethal tools to convicted murderers was a necessity in 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.

"People sometimes ask how a prisoner could hide from us," said Mark Schreiber, associate superintendent of operations. "But if you came in here and looked around, you could certainly see why it's possible and why it's happened in the past. It's absolutely a huge complex."

The property includes about one mile of various service tunnels snaking through the facility. Some portions are interconnected, others aren't. Some are easily accessible, others aren't.

"Some of them you would have to crawl to get through," Schreiber said. "But some, you could basically just stand up and walk."

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.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: