- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - On a late spring day 16 years ago, dozens of Vermont State Police troopers, correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies and others fanned out across the woods of Newport looking for two men missing from the Northern State Correctional Facility.

The search for James Lertola and Craig Whitman bears some resemblance on a much smaller scale to the search in upstate New York for the escaped murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who cut their way out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora on June 6. Up to 800 officers have been searching for the pair.

Like the New York search for Matt and Sweat, the Vermont inmates were discovered missing during a head count and the search of the grounds near the prison turned up nothing. Area residents were told to lock their doors and take the keys from their cars. Teachers and staff were paying extra close attention to local schoolchildren.

“The basics were all the same. There was an effort to get a containment area,” said Vermont State Police Capt. J.P. Sinclair, now the state’s chief criminal investigator. Sinclair was a detective sergeant in 1999 assigned to search for Lertola and Whitman. “Certainly there was a lot of use of canines to try and run tracks. We got arrest warrants out and we got pictures out to the public immediately.”

It was determined the Vermont inmates took advantage of a construction project at the prison and squeezed their ways through two temporary gates. It was later determined they probably stole two vehicles, first to escape the Newport area and then drive to Florida.

Lertola had previously escaped in 1996 and was serving up to a 33-year sentence for breaking into his boss’ home, robbing him and stealing a car. Whitman had been jailed on grand larceny and cocaine trafficking charges.

In 1999, Richard Turner was a top official with the Vermont Corrections Department. At the time, he said he feared Whitman and Lertola posed a threat to the public.

Turner, now a drug and alcohol counselor who occasionally visits prisons in his new capacity, said that in his more than 30 years as a correctional officer and later administrator, he learned that construction projects create vulnerabilities in prisons and he knew of several Vermont escapes that resulted from that.

“Whenever I walk into a correctional center and they have construction going on, I’ll make a point of stopping in to see the superintendent and say ‘Look, when people escape, they are most likely to escape during a construction phase because everything they are used to has become unnatural,’” Turner said. “Inmates have a good tendency to think about this stuff and take advantage of whatever breaches are occurring.”

Sinclair said he and others spoke with other inmates trying to figure out how Lertola and Whitman escaped and where they might have gone.

“This case was basically my life for months,” Sinclair said.

In the end, it was a key tip from the public and good police instincts that led to the capture of both men after being on the run, Sinclair said.

The investigation shifted to Daytona Beach, Florida, after a Vermont-registered car was involved in a minor traffic accident. A witness told police they had seen someone jump from the car and flee. It turns out the Vermont car was stolen. The driver told investigators Whitman and Lertola were in the area.

Lertola was arrested in a bar by U.S. Marshals a few weeks later in late June.

Months later, in November, investigators made an arrest in a stolen property investigation. While interviewing that suspect, they learned of another man who had acknowledged being on the run. It turned out to be Whitman, Sinclair said.

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