ORLANDO, Fla. — At first glance, the paperwork ordering the release of two murderers serving life sentences in a Florida prison looked legitimate. So the guards at Franklin Correctional Institution in the Florida Panhandle put one of the men on a bus and opened the gates for the other to ride away with relatives.
Authorities now say prison officials were duped by the court documents, which included a fake motion from a prosecutor and a judge’s forged signature.
As prison officials, prosecutors and courts scrambled to make sure no one else had been mistakenly released, police were searching for the two men who already had a head start. Joseph Jenkins was let out Sept. 27, and Charles Walker was freed Oct. 8.
Court officials said the phony paperwork contains the forged signatures of at least one judge and members of the State Attorney’s Office, including State Attorney Jeff Ashton. “I strongly believe they had some help,” Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday. “It is unlikely (the documents) were produced by the inmates.”
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The orders to release the inmates were filed with the Orange County clerk’s office and were crafted to appear legitimate, complete with the county seal, letterhead and a format common to documents normally filed.
Perry, whose name was forged on the paperwork, said there were red flags that should have attracted attention. Namely, it’s rare for a judge to order a sentence reduction and even more uncommon for the request to come from prosecutors.
Jenkins, 34, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, of Orlando, the father of six.
Ashton said he learned Jenkins had been released when Pugh’s family contacted his office.
Later, officials discovered Walker’s release documents were also bogus. The paperwork also forged prosecutors’ signatures, Ashton said.
It wasn’t clear who faked the paperwork or if the two cases were connected.
Upon hearing of Jenkins’ release, his former attorney, Bob Wesley, said he was sure “It wasn’t a cunning master plan.” Wesley, now the public defender for metro Orlando, recalled his client’s crime and said Jenkins broke into a home of someone he knew and was “not smart enough to pull his ski mask down.”
Walker was convicted of second-degree murder in a 1999 slaying in Orange County. He told investigators that Cedric Slater, 23, was bullying him and he fired shots intending to scare him.
Walker’s then-defense attorney, Robert LeBlanc, now a judge in Orlando, refused to comment.
In both cases, the forged paperwork included motions from prosecutors to correct “illegal” sentences, accompanied by orders allegedly filed by Perry within the last couple of months. The orders granted a 15-year sentence. Perry is best-known for presiding over the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011.
Leesa Bainbridge, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Clerk of Courts, said the office moves thousands of pages of court documents a day and has no way of authenticating those that pass through to other agencies. “We’re kind of like the post office,” she said. “It comes in and we move it along.”
Material from The Orlando Sentinel is included in this report.