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Murder suspect remains at large after mistaken release from jail

Murder suspect remains at large after mistaken release from jail
Jacqueline Davis, the mother of the man Rodriquez Purnell is accused of killing, says she is concerned for relatives in the neighborhood where he was shot and witnesses in the case. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Jacqueline Davis thought the man charged with killing her son was securely behind bars, awaiting a retrial. She was shocked when she heard Sunday that he had been seen in her neighborhood, riding in a white Buick and flashing his release papers.

Davis said it was only after her family notified authorities that Rodriquez Purnell was loose that the manhunt for him began. No one has contacted her since, she said, and she worries about the safety of witnesses who testified against Purnell during his first trial, which ended with a hung jury in August.

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The Maryland Reception, Diagnostics and Classification Center released Purnell by mistake on Friday, but did not discover the error until two days later.

Officials said the 30-year-old remained missing Tuesday. Also missing was an explanation for the accidental release, prompting at least one lawmaker to call for an independent investigation, and the Republican gubernatorial nominee to blast the O'Malley administration for a "colossal management failure."

State corrections spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli confirmed that the agency learned of Purnell's release Sunday through a citizen tip, but said he could not say whether it was from Davis' family.

Officials said "release procedures were not followed according to policy," and they were examining the incident.

"The investigation will determine exactly which procedures were not adhered to, and whether any policies need to be changed," the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said in a statement.

There were indications that a paperwork mix-up might be to blame. Vernarelli confirmed that Purnell, who was being held on multiple charges, completed his sentence related to one of those cases on Friday.

It is common for inmates to serve a sentence while awaiting trial on other charges, but cases that require them to remain in custody are supposed to be flagged.

"Investigators are looking into every day in the timeline of this entire case," Vernarelli said.

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that four people were mistakenly released from the state-run Central Booking and Intake Facility that summer. The total far exceeded the count from previous years.

Corrections officials blamed those releases on human error involving a sea of paperwork and limited staff. Before inmates are released, staff are supposed to perform multiple checks, including searches for outstanding warrants, detainers, and pending charges — a process that can take up to 24 hours.

Purnell was convicted and sentenced in June to nine months for assaulting a corrections officer. With good behavior, inmates typically serve half or less of their sentences. But the pending murder charge carried a no-bail status that should have kept him behind bars.

The state corrections system releases 10,000 sentenced inmates annually. Pretrial facilities hold a daily average of 3,000 detainees.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who served on a panel that reviewed the Baltimore City Detention Center last year, called on Maryland State Police to launch an independent criminal investigation to "determine if any criminal charges should be placed on those responsible, including any state administration official."

"It is my understanding that a body count is conducted every night to account for all prisoners in [state] custody," Cluster said in a statement. "If this is done nightly, how could such a dangerous person not come up missing immediately?"

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But Vernarelli said that a body count would not have revealed the mistake, because staff believed at the time that it had been appropriate to release Purnell.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Police said the department is offering assistance but has not been directed to conduct an investigation.

"At this point, we will continue to coordinate with Public Safety, and certainly provide any resources or law enforcement assistance required," spokeswoman Elena Russo said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan highlighted the issue in an attack on his opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. In a release, Hogan noted Brown's comments on reforms at the Baltimore City Detention Center following last year's revelations that it had become overrun with gangs.

"The lives and safety of Marylanders are once again at risk because of a colossal management failure in an O'Malley-Brown Administration agency," Hogan said in a statement.

Purnell is accused of killing Terrence Rheubottom, 27, in March 2013. He was awaiting a trial scheduled for November.

Davis, Rheubottom's mother, said neighbors told her niece that they saw Purnell riding in the white Buick and sitting on his grandmother's front porch.

"He was going and showing people papers that he beat the charge," Davis said Tuesday.

She said her family contacted the corrections department and the homicide detective and prosecutor in the case.

Davis said no one contacted her family to alert them that Purnell had gone missing.

"If he was released Friday, they had Friday to Sunday. Somebody in that jail knew he was not supposed to have been out on the street," she said. "I blame the jail. It doesn't make sense."

Davis, who lives in Baltimore County, said she is concerned for family members who live in the Coppin Heights neighborhood, where her son was gunned down.

She said she brought her mother to her house to stay until Purnell is captured.

She's also concerned for the witnesses who testified against Purnell during his first trial in August.

Davis said Purnell and her son knew each other but were not friends. She said a motive was still unclear to the family.

She hopes Purnell will turn himself in or those who are helping him will come to their senses.

"He knows he doesn't belong out on the street," she said. To those who might be helping him elude police, she said, "Think if one of your family members were killed. … It keeps their family from getting closure, from getting justice."

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