CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Idaho prison gang member and accomplice in custody after ambush

Mar 21, 2024, 3:13 PM | Updated: Apr 8, 2024, 11:56 am

An Idaho prisoner and his accomplice who escaped police custody have been recaptured....

The attack happened just outside the hospital's emergency department. (Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman via AP)

(Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman via AP)

Police on Thursday arrested an Idaho prisoner, who is a known gang member, and his accomplice who escaped following an attack on corrections officers at a Boise hospital, with investigators looking into whether they committed two killings while on the run.

Skylar Meade, the escaped inmate, and Nicholas Umphenour, the man who police say shot two Idaho corrections officers early Wednesday to break Meade out of custody, were arrested during a traffic stop Thursday afternoon in Twin Falls, about 130 miles (209km) from where they escaped.

Authorities said during a news conference Thursday that they were investigating two homicides in Nez Perce and Clearwater counties, where the 2020 Honda Civic the duo were seen fleeing in was later found. Police found shackles at the scene of one of the killings and “that’s one of the ways we tied them together,” Idaho State Police Lt. Colonel Sheldon Kelley said.

Meade, 31, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017 for shooting at a sheriff’s sergeant during a high-speed chase. Umphenour was released from the same prison in January, and had at times been housed with Meade at times, authorities said.

Authorities said they were alerted of the attack at 2:15 a.m. Wednesday as Idaho Department of Corrections officers prepared to bring Meade back to prison from Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, where they had taken him after he injured himself, officials said.

Meade had been imprisoned at Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Kuna, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of Boise.

Police said Nicholas Umphenour is suspected of shooting two corrections officers during Wednesday’s ambush in the ambulance bay at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. A warrant with a $2 million bond has been issued for his arrest on two charges of aggravated battery against law enforcement and one charge of aiding and abetting an escape, police said.

Officials described Meade as a white supremacist gang member. Meade was sentenced to 20 years in 2017 for shooting at a sheriff’s sergeant during a high-speed chase.

Three corrections officers were shot and wounded during the attack — two allegedly by Umphenour and one by responding police. One officer shot by the suspect was in critical but stable condition, police said, while the second wounded officer had serious but non-life-threatening injuries. The third injured corrections officer also sustained non-life-threatening injuries when a responding officer — incorrectly believing the shooter was still in the emergency room and seeing an armed person near the entrance — opened fire.

Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt said Thursday one guard had been released from the hospital, and the other two are stable and improving.

“This brazen, violent, and apparently coordinated attack on Idaho Department of Corrections personnel, to facilitate an escape of a dangerous inmate, was carried out right in front of the Emergency Department, where people come for medical help, often in the direst circumstances,” Boise Police Chief Ron Winegar said in a written statement.

Umphenour, 5-foot-11 (180 centimeters) and 160 pounds (72.5 kilograms), has brown hair and hazel eyes, police said. Detectives have confirmed that he is an associate of Meade, police said.

Meade, 5-foot-6 (168 centimeters) and 150 pounds (68 kilograms), has face tattoos with the numbers 1 and 11 — for A and K, the first and 11th letters of the alphabet, representing the Aryan Knights gang he affiliated with, Tewalt said. Photos released by police also showed an A and K tattooed on his abdomen.

The Aryan Knights formed in the mid-1990s in Idaho’s prison system to organize criminal activity for a select group of white people in custody, as well as outside prison walls, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in the district of Idaho.

In 2021, a man described as a leader in the group was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a plot to traffic drugs behind bars and use violence to collect unpaid debts. In a court filing ahead of Harlan Hale’s sentencing, federal prosecutors described the Aryan Knights as a “scourge” within the state’s prison system that drains its resources.

“The hate-fueled gang engages in many types of criminal activity and casts shadows of intimidation, addiction, and violence over prison life,” prosecutors wrote.

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League counted 75 different white supremacist prison gangs in federal or local facilities in at least 38 states. The ADL said two of the largest such groups, the Aryan Circle and Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, had at least 1,500 members.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the ADL’s Center on Extremism, estimates that the Aryan Knights has approximately 150 members behind bars and roughly 100 more on the streets. He said it operates in other states, including Washington and Oregon.

“With all white supremacist prison gangs, the ideology takes a backseat to the organized crime. That’s just a given,” he said. “They use that as a sort of a glue to help keep them together and help keep them loyal to the gang.”

Pitcavage said white supremacist prison gangs are a very different phenomenon than neo-Nazi groups like Aryan Nations, which had a compound in north Idaho at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meade had been held in a type of solitary confinement called administrative segregation at Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Kuna, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of Boise, because officials deemed him a severe security risk, Tewalt said.

Tewalt said earlier in the day that Meade had been escorted in the ambulance and at the hospital by two uniformed, unarmed officers wearing ballistic vests, tailed by armed staff. Later in the day Correction Department spokesperson Sanda Kuzeta-Cerimagic said in an email that officials had confirmed that one officer had been in the ambulance with Meade and two officers were in an escort vehicle.

“To the best of our knowledge, Meade was in restraints while being escorted in and out of the hospital,” Kuzeta-Cerimagic said. In a press conference Thursday, authorities said their protocol was “wholly in line with our policies and practices.”

Authorities also did not say if other security measures were in place when Meade was leaving the hospital.

The attack came amid a wave of gun violence at hospitals and medical centers, which have struggled to adapt to the threats.

___

Johnson reported from Seattle and Thiessen from Anchorage, Alaska. Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington; Associated Press researcher Rhonda Schafner in New York; and Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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Idaho prison gang member and accomplice in custody after ambush