Golden Grove detainee escapes; Corrections unaware until woman reports to V.I. Police that he raped her


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ST. CROIX - The V.I. Corrections Bureau did not learn of the escape of accused serial rapist Rafael Joseph from Golden Grove prison Sunday night until a woman reported to police that Joseph had raped her and the V.I. Police Department contacted the bureau to inquire whether he was still in prison.

Corrections Bureau officials said Monday afternoon that they do not know exactly how or when Joseph escaped, except that it was sometime after 9 p.m. Sunday and that they are investigating Joseph's escape.

Police said they recaptured him about noon on Monday in a bushy area near Claude O. Markoe Elementary School.

School Superintendant Gary Molloy said that he had not received any indication that the manhunt and apprehension near the school caused any disruption at the school.

Escape

According to information from police and prison officials during a press briefing Monday afternoon, Joseph, 39, who was last known to be homeless when he was arrested in 2011, escaped from Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility some time after the nightly population head count at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Bureau of Corrections Director Julius Wilson said Monday afternoon that he did not know whether the next scheduled head count, at 2:30 a.m. Monday, had been done. That is part of the investigation, he said.

Wilson said his department first learned of the escape about 3:05 a.m. Monday, when police officers notified the bureau that someone had been at the Wilbur Francis Police Station and reported that she had been raped by Joseph. At that time, police asked prison officials to verify that Joseph was still in custody at the prison and they were unable to do so, according to Wilson.

Wilson said that a head count done at approximately 3:20 a.m. in response to the police inquiry confirmed that Joseph was gone.

"At that time, we went into recovery mode to find him and mobilized our men," he said.

Warnings

As news of the escape spread throughout the territory Monday morning, residents, including some law enforcement officers, were concerned about why the community had not been notified earlier about the escape and the safety risk it posed and specifically why a V.I. Alert - an emergency communications message - had not been distributed.

V.I. Police spokeswoman Melody Rames said she was notified of the incident some time after 3 a.m. and sent the first police statement out about 6:30 a.m.

While Assistant V.I. Police Commissioner Thomas Hannah said the task of issuing a V.I. Alert for such an incident would fall under the responsibility of the Bureau of Corrections, Rames said she alerted Government House to have the alert sent about 7 a.m.

Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said in addition to the V.I. Alerts, which residents began receiving about 9 a.m., Rames took to the airwaves on a number of local radio stations to additionally alert the community about the situation as it developed.

Hannah said V.I. Police officers and Bureau of Corrections officers initially were involved in the search.

He said St. Croix Police Chief James Parris then sought and received supplemental manpower from the Deputy Marshals at V.I. Superior Court while Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. requested assistance from federal partners in the U.S. Marshals Services.

"We had off-duty officers reporting in to support the officers who were working. Officers responded to every sighting from the Harbor View Apartments to Sunny Isles to the Frederiksted town and surrounding areas. They were determined to get this suspect off the streets and they did," Parris said.

Search

Hannah said that he began mobilizing available units to search for Joseph at 5:30 a.m. Monday. He said among officers who were deployed were the Special Reaction Team, who have received specialized tactical training.

Hannah said the police department began getting calls from members of the community who reported sighting Joseph in various parts of Frederiksted. He said Joseph was sighted on Strand Street in Frederiksted town just after 11 a.m. and then in the Mars Hill area south of Ludvig Harrigan housing community.

"We had planned to look for him where he was before, and that's where we found him," Hannah said. "Mars Hill is his old stomping ground, and we concentrated our efforts in that general area."

Hannah said an officer saw Joseph - who had already gotten rid of his bright red Bureau of Corrections uniform - entering a bushy area near the Ludvig Harrigan housing community and followed him into the bushes.

The officer called out for Joseph to stop and surrender to police, and Joseph complied with the officers' orders and was taken into custody without incident on the northeastern side of the school and south of the housing community, according to Hannah.

"Just before noon, around 11:58 a.m., he was captured and was in the process of being booked and brought back to custody," he said.

With the arrest on Monday, Joseph now faces charges of escape from custody and first-degree rape.

Hannah said the woman, a resident of Two Brothers, reported that Joseph, whom she knows, showed up at her home where she lives alone sometime about 2 a.m. and raped her.

Investigation

Corrections officials said they do not yet know how the escape was accomplished.

Golden Grove Warden Basil Richards said an investigation has been launched.

"We haven't figured out how this happened yet. We're trying to backtrack," Wilson said.

Officials do not believe Joseph had any help escaping and are trying to figure out "how he manipulated locks" and got out, Wilson said.

Joseph breached the security fence and left the prison grounds to the rear of the facility on the north side near the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the police impound lot, officials said.

Although Wilson said he was surprised by the escape, the U.S. Justice Department and the independent monitor hired to assess how well the Corrections Bureau is doing implementing a settlement agreement aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards have pointed out - more than once - major security lapses at Golden Grove and their potential impact on safety inside and outside of the prison.

Those dangers have been repeatedly highlighted, year after year, in the case involving prison conditions at Golden Grove, which violate the protection against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The case has been going on more than 27 years, although the territory has yet to fix the problems.

In recent reports, the monitor has written about substandard and inconsistent security practices - for instance, inconsistency with closing and locking security doors and gates - in the prison that are "exacerbated by inoperable locking mechanisms."

The monitor also has pointed out more than once that inmates are able to "pop" their cell door locks and gain unauthorized access to housing unit areas.

At a court hearing late last month, prison officials described extensive work they had done on locks at the prison during a status conference in the case. Although the U.S. Justice Department had planned to introduce the reports of the monitor, who is an expert in Corrections, as evidence in court, the territory is trying to block it, contending that the reports should be considered "hearsay."

Lockdown

In response to a question about short-staffing at Golden Grove on Sunday night, Wilson said "it's a challenge," but would not provide specifics about how short-staffed the facility was when the escape occurred.

He said that Corrections had an officer on duty in the unit from which Joseph escaped.

Inadequate staffing is a critical problem at the prison.

Trying to turn that situation around was a major focus at the status conference about the consent decree last month, with the judge noting that the staffing shortage drives many of the problems at the prison and has rippling effects.

Wilson would not say Monday how much of a factor short-staffing may have been in the escape, saying officials are still investigating.

"I don't know how it was done. I can't attribute it directly to staffing. We've got to do an investigation," he said.

Because officials have not discovered how the security breach occurred, Golden Grove has been placed on lockdown and additional officers have been brought over from St. Thomas to help, according to Wilson.

Staff also have been put on notice also that certain leaves will not be approved because of the situation, he said.

Likewise, he indicated there would be shakedowns.

Just more than a month ago, federal agents conducted a night-time search of the prison looking for contraband in an ongoing criminal investigation and recovered approximately 55 weapons, including homemade knives, or shanks, and other contraband that could be used as weapons, such as razor blades and scissors; 28 cell phones; and other items, including illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Wilson would not say when he expects the shakedowns to begin.

Pending charges

Monday's rape charge was the forth time that Joseph has been charged with a rape in the territory.

In 1992, at the age of 17, Joseph was charged in the first-degree rape of a woman. He was bound over to face the charges as an adult and later sentenced to spend the next 30 years in prison. He was paroled in 2007 after serving more than half of his prison sentence only to be re-arrested in February 2011 in connection with the rapes of two other woman two days apart, according to court documents.

Joseph, in the first incident, was accused of raping a woman he knew on Feb. 6, 2011, in the Two Brother's area of Frederiksted. The woman did not immediately report the rape to police, and by the time she did go to police the following day, a second woman had reported that a man - later identified as Joseph - had raped her at a Frederiksted beach.

Joseph has remained jailed since his arrests and pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. The rape charge against him, in reference to the acquaintance was subsequently dismissed, and he was scheduled to go to trial April 7 in the beach rape. During the final status conference in the case, his attorney, Gordon Rhea, filed a motion with the court, seeking a psychological evaluation for Joseph.

He since has been scheduled to have the evaluation conducted by the Division of Mental Health, who was ordered to have the evaluation completed and a report generated for a hearing scheduled for July 2 before V.I. Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady.

Joseph is expected to be advised of his rights on the new charges in V.I. Superior Court at 9 a.m. today.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi; contact Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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