CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Utah history shows inmates in transit can be a security challenge

Mar 20, 2024, 9:00 PM

The sun rises over the Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018....

The sun rises over the Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The manhunt for an escaped Idaho inmate and the accomplice accused of helping him elude authorities while in transit to a Boise hospital may sound eerily familiar to corrections officials in Utah. 

Wednesday, police said the inmate, a member of a white supremacist prison gang, injured himself in order to be taken to the hospital overnight. Police said the inmate and an accomplice attacked corrections officers.

The last man executed in Utah and one of the seven men currently on Utah’s Death Row both received their sentences, in part, because of escape attempts carried out while they were inmates in transit. 

Man executed in Utah had history of escape attempts

Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in 2010 for the murder of an attorney during an escape attempt. But it wasn’t his first escape attempt, nor the only time he attacked people responsible for moving him as a jail inmate. He attacked officers trying to move him out of his cell with a screwdriver in 1984. Later that year, he head-butted a corrections officer during a prison riot. He then staged an escape from a trip to the hospital by attacking the officer who transported him and stealing his gun. He was captured months later, after robbing a bar and killing an employee, Melvyn Otterstrom. 

While awaiting trial on that case, in 1985, Gardner shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell, during that previously mentioned escape attempt. At the time, he was being transferred from the state prison to Salt Lake City for a court appearance. A girlfriend supplied him with the gun he used to shoot Burdell. Burdell just happened to be there doing legal work unrelated to Gardner’s charges. Gardner also shot a bailiff before eventually being recaptured outside the courthouse.

Inmates in transit provide security challenge in Utah and elsewhere

A man currently on death row in Utah, Troy Kell, arrived there in part because of an attempted escape. Kell was serving a life sentence already when another inmate slipped him the key to his handcuffs in 1994 while he was being escorted to a medical clinic. He freed himself, then stabbed another inmate dozens of times using a homemade shank. 

Statewide, inmates in transit pose a challenge for security, whether at the state prison level or in county jails. KSL has reported on several cases of inmates walking away from work release programs in the past several years. Typically, they are recaught shortly later. But not always. A man escaped from the Utah State Prison in 1985 while helping fix equipment outside the facility’s gates. He was not recaptured until 22 years later. He was eventually caught when a state agency flagged the phony name he was living under as possibly being a stolen identity. 

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Utah history shows inmates in transit can be a security challenge