A Private Correction Facility’s Extensive Negligence Leads to a Hostage Situation

Held at gunpoint

What began as a regular morning for Jackie Murdock* at the accounting office she and her husband operated in a Columbus suburb—resulted in unforgettable events. The sound of the low-flying helicopter was Jackie’s first clue that something strange was happening. Then she heard a loud bash as her front door was kicked in by a man wearing a corrections officer’s uniform and wielding a gun.

The man who entered was Bobby Ray DuPree*, a dangerous felon who had escaped from the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NOCC) and had randomly chosen the Murdock’s office as a place to hide from police pursuit. The uniform and gun were stolen from a guard he’d overcome in his escape.

Jackie, alone and terrified, suddenly found herself in a hostage situation. Through the window she watched as a SWAT team surrounded her office, and her unease grew. Her husband, Todd Murdock* returned from running errands to discover the house he and Jackie used as an office surrounded by the SWAT team. Police informed him that his wife was being held hostage by an armed fugitive.

After hours of negotiations with the police, DuPree agreed to let Jackie go unharmed—in exchange for a pizza.

Eventually, DuPree was apprehended, and with charges that included kidnapping, escape, and bank robbery (he’d held up two banks before breaking into the Murdocks’ office), he faced life in prison.

Personal injury attorneys uncover system of negligence

Struggling to recover from the psychological effects of the event, the Murdocks came to us for help.

We filed suit against CCA, the privately owned business in charge of operating the prison because it stood to reason that the corporation was ultimately responsible for DuPree’s escape. However, we knew the Murdocks’ case could be tricky because operators of state and federal prisons are afforded certain legal protections due to the nature of their profession—but it was unclear if those protections extended to privately owned corporations like CCA.

CCA’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was ultimately rejected by the Court.

Meanwhile, as we proceeded through discovery, the extent of the NOCC’s negligence became increasingly—and distressingly—clear. Among our findings:

  • DuPree was moved from a county jail to the NOCC because he had a history of hiding contraband on his body and threatening corrections staff. Such a prisoner required high-level detention, but the NOCC was only a low-to-middle-security facility.
  • A form was sent with DuPree from the jail to the NOCC warning that he should be held on the highest security level, be strip-searched and “black-boxed” (meaning his handcuffs should be covered to prevent him from picking the lock) during transport, but those instructions were ignored.
  • DuPree escaped after being moved to a nearby medical facility because he was found lying on the floor with blood on his forehead. After he was moved, a staff member who cleaned the cell discovered a razor blade with blood on it (likely used by DuPree to fake the injury), yet that person failed to inform anyone of the discovery.
  • The two corrections officers in charge of guarding DuPree at the medical facility were never warned that he was a high-level security risk with a history of hiding contraband.
  • DuPree was not strip-searched when he was transported to the medical facility or placed in his hospital room, his room wasn’t searched and nobody monitored him when he used the bathroom.

We discovered that the rate of escape from CCA-run facilities versus state or federally run prisons was abysmally high, with prior escapes taking place in Tennessee, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois. What’s more, many of those incidents were strikingly similar to DuPree’s: there was a breakdown in training and failure to follow proper procedures.

Justice for the Murdocks

Typically, if a case is going to settle, it happens before trial or at the end of the trial. This time, though, something odd happened: CCA chose to settle in the middle of the trial.

Our guess is that, given the strong case of negligence we had built against the corporation, it wanted to avoid the continued negative exposure it would receive in a lingering public trial—especially right before it was set to renew a valuable contract with the federal government.

From the perspective of our clients’ needs, the timing couldn’t have been better. Although the process of getting answers and preparing for trial helped Jackie tremendously as she tried to come to grips with the ordeal she went through, she was still terrified of testifying and having to relive the nightmare. Tom, on the other hand, did get to testify, and for him the process was cathartic.

In terms of the public good, the attention this case and similar ones received resulted in a noticeable slowdown in the privatization of prisons in Ohio. Whether those prisons have improved their procedures though, is still a matter of debate.

Moving onward and upward

We’re happy to say the Murdocks are doing much better now. Between the justice they received and that other great healer—time—they’ve managed to pick up where they left off and grow.

Not only have they continued their accounting practice and brought their three children into the family business, but they’ve also started another venture built around a passion of Todd’s: collectable coins.

As Ohio personal injury attorneys, winning cases and obtaining justice on behalf of our clients is what we live for. There’s something about seeing those positive “after” pictures—seeing people on the mend, as they move beyond their adversity and flourish—that is uniquely rewarding.

*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.