- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s former corrections chief has been free on bail while awaiting sentencing in May - for taking nearly $1.5 million in payoffs while he ran the state’s prison system. Now a judge is set to decide whether to revoke his bail and put him behind bars because of some outdoor lights he took from a home he forfeited.

The five lights and a control box are worth less than $1,000.

U.S. marshals took Christopher Epps into custody Thursday, two days after police in the Jackson suburb of Flowood charged Epps with burglary for taking the items from a house he forfeited to the federal government after his guilty plea in the corruption case.

As early as Friday, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate could decide whether to revoke Epps‘ $25,000 bail, which allows him to remain free until sentencing.

Epps pleaded guilty in February 2015 to charges of money laundering and filing false tax returns over the bribes. He faces up to 23 years in federal prison and has forfeited more than $1.7 million in assets, including the Flowood house, a Gulf Coast condominium, two luxury cars and cash.

Prosecutors asked Wingate to jail Epps at a hearing Thursday. The former prison chief pleaded tearfully for another chance, calling what he did a “terrible mistake.”

Epps testified in shackles, even after he was warned he could incriminate himself on the separate state burglary charge. A person convicted would face three to 25 years in state prison.

There’s little factual dispute over what happened - Epps testified he took the lights and the control box Oct. 27 from his former house in a gated subdivision. Epps said he realized he hadn’t removed the lights when he was putting up Halloween decorations at his new home nearby.

“I wish a million times I hadn’t done it,” said Epps, who headed the state prison system for 12 years until 2014. “I just wasn’t thinking.”

The government gave him until May 9 to remove his belongings, with Epps signing paperwork that stated remaining property would belong to the government after that. Epps, wearing the black dress pants and T-shirt he was arrested in at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, said he had mistakenly believed he could remove property later.

“I didn’t go over there to steal nothing,” Epps testified. “I’m not that type of person.”

Wingate scheduled the bond revocation hearing to continue Friday, instructing prosecutors to present evidence on whether Epps was intoxicated when the lights were taken. Epps‘ bond bars him from drinking excessively or taking illegal drugs.

Epps remained in custody Thursday night.

He retired in November 2014 the day before indictments were made public. Six people have pleaded guilty to charges of bribing Epps or others for prison contracts, while others have been indicted.

Epps made the visit to the house hours before a new owner concluded the purchase of the house from the federal government - in what Epps testified was only a coincidence. The new owner had already noted the lights and called police Oct. 28 when he realized they were gone, with only clipped wires remaining.

Flowood Police Detective Eric Zetterholm testified neighbors told him Epps had announced his intent to take the lights Oct. 27, and that Epps acknowledged taking them when he obtained a search warrant and went to Epps‘ new home. Police charged him with burglary Tuesday.

Breaking down in sobs at one point, Epps begged Wingate to not revoke his bail.

“I know what it means to be on bond and it’s important to me to be with my family,” Epps said. He added he’s spending his time working with his lawyers, doing volunteer work and cooperating with federal prosecutors.

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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