An inmate facing theft charges escaped from custody at the San Joaquin County courthouse Wednesday afternoon and was captured blocks away, hiding in a trash container.
Ternell Harris, 28, was wearing orange county jail clothing when he ran out an open inmate loading gate at 3:11 p.m. at the Stockton courthouse, according to the Sheriff's Office.
He was found and re-arrested about nine minutes later, hiding in the trash container near a vacant apartment building at Sonora and Grant streets, more than half a mile from the courthouse.
Harris, who had appeared in court at 1:30 p.m., was in the basement where inmates are loaded to and from buses that drive them to the county jail. A security gate, which is large enough to allow the buses through, was open to allow another law enforcement vehicle inside, according to Sheriff's spokesman Dave Konecny.
Harris then allegedly ran out the open gate and escaped from bailiffs. Officers from Stockton police, the Sheriff's department and the California Highway Patrol gave chase. Stockton police officers ultimately found him, Konecny said.
The trash container was sitting near a vacant, fenced apartment building. Several residents in the area said they had seen the police cars but hadn't seen the running man.
The escape adds to the questions of courthouse security, which had concerned attorneys even before a Lodi murder suspect attacked a judge two months ago. David Paradiso - who was shot and killed by a Lodi police detective as he tried to stab the judge - had somehow smuggled a metal shank into the building and was high on methamphetamine, though he had been held in maximum security for two years.
Paradiso's March 4 incident raised questions about security, and Wednesday's escape compounded those concerns.
"I'm just surprised that we've had another incident so quickly," said Steve Hahn, president of the county District Attorney's Association.
Hahn, who was in the courthouse at the time of the escape, wasn't happy that he and others who work in the building had no knowledge of the escape until he was contacted by a reporter.
Presiding Judge William J. Murray Jr. has spent extensive time working on a new courthouse plan, citing security concerns in his lobbying for more funding.
"Our facility is inadequate," he said Wednesday after the escape, though he did not comment directly about the incident as he hadn't been fully briefed on it. "It was designed for people who were drunk and disorderly in 1963, not the people we have today."
He acknowledged that the inmate loading area is an area that will be vastly improved in the new building, so inmates won't have a chance to get to an open doorway.
A similar method was used slightly less than a year ago.
Richard Potts, who was also 28, escaped from custody on May 27, 2008, and tried to carjack a woman, but citizens stopped him and held him until law enforcement caught up. He has since been convicted of murder in an unrelated case.
Unlike Potts, Harris was not charged with violent crimes.
Konecny said Harris was facing charges of burglary, petty theft with a prior conviction for petty theft and vandalism. Jail information showed that Harris had been booked into the French Camp jail on Monday afternoon, following his arrest by Stockton police officers.
Konecny said an investigation into the escape is continuing.
To further complicate matters, the courthouse is facing security budget troubles due to a statewide money shortage. The state is facing $54 million in budget shortfalls for court security, Murray said, and that works out to $575,000 for San Joaquin County - or about four full-time bailiffs.
Murray hopes the Legislature passes a fee increase, which would raise court security fees - part of traffic ticket and criminal conviction fines - by $7.
"In our present environment, we need additional resources; we don't need our budget decreased," he said.