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Inmate charged with murder sought after mistaken release

A Baltimore man awaiting trial for murder was mistakenly released from a city detention facility Friday — an error that was not recognized for two days, according to corrections officials. He remained at large Monday night.

Officials said they learned Sunday night that Rodriquez Purnell, 30, was missing from the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, which holds inmates who are segregated for various reasons, including because they are considered dangerous or a potential target for violence. The center also processes inmates destined for other facilities.

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Upon discovering Purnell's release, officials "immediately notified law enforcement and began an investigation," corrections spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said in an e-mail. Officials publicly disclosed the mistake Monday afternoon and said it remained unclear how it occurred.

"There are many questions to be answered in this case," Vernarelli said.

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Anyone with knowledge of Purnell's whereabouts was asked to call 911.

The incident marked at least the second time in recent years that authorities mistakenly released a high-risk inmate from one of the state-run detention facilities in downtown Baltimore. In 2010, a man serving a triple-life sentence at the Chesapeake Detention Facility swapped ID cards with a cellmate and fled to West Virginia.

It also follows intense scrutiny of the corrections system after revelations of widespread corruption in the Baltimore City Detention Center. In a wide-ranging indictment last year, prosecutors alleged the facility was overrun with gangs and that detainees slept with female guards and conspired with them to smuggle in contraband.

State lawmakers who issued a series of recommendations to improve conditions at the city jail expressed dismay at the latest erroneous release of an inmate.

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"It's disturbing enough that they let him go — it's even more disturbing that they didn't know for three days," said Del. John Cluster, a Baltimore County Republican who served on that panel.

"It just shows you they're in such disarray. They need to clean house of their management. They're just not doing their job."

Sen. James "Ed" DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who also served on the panel, echoed Cluster's comments.

"I think it's inexcusable," DeGrange said.

On Monday night, the state's online "inmate locater" tool still listed Purnell as being at the classification center, part of the massive detention complex that includes the city detention center. Online records also indicated he was being held at the detention center.

The classification center is a separate facility with its own leadership and budget. It employs 350 staff members and has a daily offender population of about 670. It serves as an intake center for four counties, and its population includes parole violators and "those assigned to disciplinary or administrative segregation."

Vernarelli, citing advice from the state agency's legal counsel, said he could not say whether Purnell was being held in restricted housing at the time of his release. Inmates held in restricted housing are under a higher level of security than the general population.

In June, Purnell was sentenced to nine months for assaulting a corrections officer. According to charging documents from the assault, Purnell was ordered to return to his cell from the day room at the detention center when he told the officer "[expletive] you! Who do you think you're talking to?"

When the officer repeated the order, Purnell punched him in the face. Purnell then pushed the officer onto his back and continued to punch and scratch him, the officer wrote in court papers. Another officer pulled the officer from the day room, the document said.

Purnell went to trial in August on charges that he fatally shot a 27-year-old man in West Baltimore in March 2013, but court records show the case ended in a hung jury.

Police wrote in charging documents that witnesses identified Purnell as the shooter in the killing of Terrence Rheubottom, who was found inside a burgundy 2001 Honda Accord riddled with bullet holes in the 1800 block of Ruxton Ave.

Purnell's attorney in that case, Jason Ott, said he was held without bail after the trial. Court records show Purnell was tentatively scheduled for a new trial on Nov. 19.

Ott is no longer representing Purnell, and his current attorney could not be reached.

Records show Purnell had been in and out of prison, with a criminal record dating to 2002, when he was convicted of robbery and eventually sentenced to four years in prison. In 2007 he received six months in jail for a traffic violation; in 2009, he was sentenced to 10 years with all but three years suspended for a drug distribution conviction. He received another four years in 2011 for an attempted drug distribution conviction, the records show.

When a high-risk inmate was mistakenly released in 2010, corrections officials fired one employee within a week and later disciplined seven others. Another retired in lieu of discipline.

In that instance, 26-year-old Raymond T. Taylor, who was serving a triple life sentence for attempted murder, walked out of the Chesapeake Detention Facility, which was then known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.

Taylor had obtained his cellmate's identification card and passed through three stages of the release process. Officials at the time said Taylor had similar features to his cellmate, who also was released that day.

Taylor was located and arrested in West Virginia the day after his release. Four years were added to his sentence for a conviction on first-degree escape.

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