- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Two New Mexico inmates pleaded not guilty Monday at their arraignment on charges of escaping from the back of a prison van earlier this year.

Convicted felons Lionel Clah and Joseph Cruz both entered the pleas in state court in Carlsbad, the district attorney’s office said. It was not immediately clear when they will stand trial on the charges.

Authorities say the two bolted from a prison van along a desert highway near Artesia and hitched a ride 200 miles north to Albuquerque from a man who state police say helped free them from their shackles.

Officers did not realize the two inmates had escaped until hours later when the van arrived at a Las Cruces prison.

A massive manhunt led to Cruz and Clah’s separate arrests days later in Albuquerque.

Clah, who shot at a police officer near Farmington in 2007, already is serving a 30-year sentence.

Cruz had been sentenced to life in prison on a first-degree murder conviction.

According to Corrections Department records obtained by The Associated Press, the corrections officers who transported them the night they escaped had just left a small-town gas station when they heard the vehicle’s locks click.

State police have said Cruz and Clah broke out of the prison van after picking the locks on their handcuffs with some sort of wire. They made a break for it near the Artesia gas station after they managed to unlock the vehicle’s doors.

Since the escape, officials have removed power locks and door handles from the interior rear area of about a dozen Corrections Department vans, according to the documents obtained by the AP in August.

Since March, corrections officials also have spent $700,000 for five new vans, two buses, one medical transport unit and other equipment.

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