- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Maybe it was enough that two inmates escaped from Rudolph Zurick’s jail.

Or maybe their taunting, smiley-faced note calling him “a real pal” and thanking him “for the tools needed” — and the press attention it brought — was more than the shoe-shining perfectionist of a guard could take, even if no one thought for a second that he’d helped the criminals break out.

Perhaps the mere possibility that he could be suspended or fired from the job he’d performed spotlessly for 14 years was what pushed him to the point that even the counseling he sought immediately after the escape couldn’t save him.

His friends and family might never know for sure.

On Wednesday, the day he was to be interviewed by investigators probing the Dec. 16 breakout, Mr. Zurick fatally shot himself at the home he shared with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

The veteran officer with the unblemished record was never thought to have aided in the escape and was not facing a criminal investigation, though he had retained a lawyer.

“There is no answer to why this happened,” said Jim Roche, president of PBA Local 199, the union that represents the Union County Jail’s corrections officers. “As much as you think you know someone, you don’t really know them.”

Mr. Zurick was known among his co-workers as a proud, intense man who took his job and reputation seriously. He was still coping with the deaths of both parents in the past 16 months when he reported to work on the afternoon of the escape. And he was upset when, within a few days of the escape, his name was leaked to the press.

Mr. Roche recalled an incredulous Mr. Zurick calling him after a reporter showed up at his house.

“To have his name associated with anything troubling was very disturbing to him,” said Michael J. Mitzner, Mr. Zurick’s lawyer, adding, “your parents are the people you would normally turn to for support, and they weren’t around for him.”

Mr. Zurick had only been at his post for about an hour when he discovered the prisoners were missing and called for a lockdown, Mr. Roche said. Mr. Zurick was one of three officers each working an eight-hour shift in the area, which contains eight or nine units.

Inmates Jose Espinosa, 20, and Otis Blunt, 32, used a thick metal wire similar to what is used in binding chain link fencing to poles and a 10-pound steel water shut-off wheel to dig through the cinderblock walls of their adjoining cells in a high-security unit, authorities said. Like the inmate played by Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption,” the two had used photos of bikini-clad women to hide their work.

They laid out pillows and sheets to make it look like they were sleeping under blankets, then jumped onto a lower roof and made it over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, authorities said.

The note, found in Espinosa’s cell, bore a smiley face and read, “Thank you Officer Zurick for the tools needed. You’re a real pal. Happy holidays.”

Mr. Zurick and another officer immediately requested that they be taken to a hospital, a benefit afforded under the union’s contract when a traumatic event has occurred. Mr. Zurick returned to work two days later and retained an attorney for the upcoming investigation.

Espinosa and Blunt were still at large yesterday, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

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