ELIZABETH – The two Union County jail inmates who made national headlines after breaking out of the facility in December have pleaded not guilty to escape charges.
One of the men, Otis Blunt, who allegedly left a taunting note for a guard at who later committed suicide, also rejected a plea bargain on separate robbery and assault charges.
Blunt and Jose Espinosa each face one count of third-degree escape, which could add three years to each prisoner’s sentence, prosecutors said.
Authorities said the men fled Dec. 14 by squeezing through a hole they had dug through a cinder block cell wall. They consealed the hole with a pinup photo, which drew comparisons with the 1994 Stephen King movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”
The pair exited onto a third-floor rooftop, then leaped over a 25-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, according to officials.
The inmates had piled sheets under their blankets to make it appear they were sleeping, and guards didn’t raise an alarm until 5 p.m. on Dec. 15.
At the time they escaped, Blunt was facing robbery and weapons charges stemming from the shooting of a convenience store manager. Because a weapon was allegedly used, he could face life in prison if convicted. A trial was set for June 2.
Espinosa previously pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter. He was sentenced last month to 17 years in prison.
Officials said Blunt left behind a taunting note thanking one guard for his “help.” That guard, Rudolph Zurick, 40, committed suicide two weeks after the escape, although investigators have said there is no evidence any guard knowingly assisted the prisoners.
An investigation into the escape revealed that the cells of the two inmates had not been searched for more than two months prior to the breakout.
Two corrections officers and three sergeants face administrative charges stemming from the escape, and all could loose their jobs.
Espinosa, identified by authorities as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was found on Jan. 8 in a basement apartment near the jail. Blunt was arrested the next day at a cheap hotel in Mexico City.
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