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Crumbling Jails: Colorado sheriff’s blame lack of funding and oversight for dangerous jailbreaks

BENT COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) - A series of jail escapes in southern Colorado prompted a nationwide manhunt over the summer. Now, questions are being raised about jail security, the oversight of jails, and public safety.

KRDO13 Investigates has uncovered that a lack of oversight allowed four dangerous inmates to escape a county jail. On top of that, rural county jails face a lack of funding, creating staffing shortages that led to the perfect storm for a jailbreak.

Dangerous Escape

A hole in the east exterior wall of the Bent County jail is still a reminder to Bent County Sheriff Jake Six of the four inmates who broke free in July, leading to a month-long manhunt.

Six was at the Bent County Fairground when he received a call from his undersheriff on Tuesday, July 25.

“Hey, can you come over to the jail? It looks like we're missing three inmates,” said Six, recalling the phone conversation.

He later learned four inmates escaped more than 48 hours before anyone had noticed.

“Complacency on all of us, everybody,” Six said. “The sheetrock ceiling we should have checked. We should have been more strict on policies to make staff go do their checks.”

The hole 4 inmates escaped through from the Bent County Jail

When Six learned what happened, he notified local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, starting a state-wide manhunt. He said more than 60 cops and even volunteer firemen were involved in the search. 

Everyone was looking for the four escaped inmates — Eleazar Lopez, George Vigil, Mark Fox, and Benjamin Valdez. Lopez and Vigil were quickly found when they called 911 for a medical emergency. Valdez was found dead in Pueblo from an apparent drug overdose. So law enforcement's attention turned to 46-year-old Mark Fox, who has a long and violent criminal history.

“It was serious,” said Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell. “It was dangerous. Multiple inmates escaping over a period of time was highly concerning.”

Fox had been recently sentenced to 64 years in prison for two counts of assault. His sentence was inflated because of Colorado’s habitual criminal statute, which allows criminals with at least three prior convictions to be sentenced to four times the maximum potential sentence.

In this case, the maximum sentence for second-degree assault was eight years, but because Fox had at least five prior felony convictions in Jefferson, Boulder, and Denver Counties, his sentences were four times as long. Six said the fact Fox was facing 64 years in prison was probably the reason he escaped.

Nearly a month after the escape, Fox was found dead in an abandoned farmhouse in rural Otero County.

“It was kind of a kick of, ‘How did we not catch this?’” Six said.

Poor Infrastructure

Six said poor jail infrastructure and a lack of training led to the escape.

The four inmates were housed in a large cell, or pod as they are known, with other inmates. The pod was a refurbished kitchen, renovated more than 20 years ago, but Six said the space wasn’t completed. While the walls were made of steel, the ceiling was only sheetrock.

“At no time did I think when I walked through the jail to start knocking on the ceilings, especially when your walls are steel,” Six said. “It was overlooked by everybody for the last 10, 20 years because it's what was put in in 2000 when the building was built.”

According to Six, the inmates stood on the sink in their bathroom — out of view of security cameras — and carved a hole in the ceiling. They then crawled to the east side of the jail, broke a hole in the soffit, lowered themselves using a ladder made of sheets, and ran away through the golf course next door.

“Should we have known before that the ceiling in the pod where these individuals left from only had a ceiling that was made out of wallboard? Yes, we should have known that,” MacDonnell said. “I hate to say this, but you just assumed that it was built as a jail.”

KRDO13 Investigates learned none of the jailbreak was caught on security cameras. The exterior camera that would have captured the inmates escaping wasn’t working at the time and another exterior camera was pointed directly at a shipping container on the golf course’s property, which the inmates used to hide behind.

The shipping container that hid the inmates from view of the cameras

Failure to Follow Policy

“Running a jail where you're holding people, one of the very basic jobs is to know who's there and where they are at all times, so where that breakdown occurred is something that we're looking into,” MacDonnell said.

Six said the escape went unnoticed because his jailers failed to properly count inmates. He said their policy is to visually check each inmate every morning. However, he said this didn’t happen because inmates told the staff the escapees were sick and couldn’t get out of bed. The four escapees were never in bed and instead placed bundled-up sheets under the covers to make it look like they were.

“There were some problems with the checks, there were some problems with the policies not being followed and it's all being addressed,” Six said.

Six also said there was miscommunication after Otero County moved their inmates and staff to the Bent County jail, during their jail renovations.

“With the integration, we had missed some things, so we pulled all the staff in and we started doing a mass training of how this could not happen again,” Six said.

Lack of Inspections

KRDO13 Investigates requested inspection reports of the Bent County jail in the last 10 years to see if any of these problems were avoidable, but we were told no inspection records exist. Six told KRDO13 Investigates the jail has never been inspected.

“There’s really no one to do it,” he said. “I don’t even know who to call to inspect.”

Colorado doesn’t require safety inspections or jail audits since the law was repealed in 1996, so ensuring the safety and security of jails is up to county sheriffs. After the escape, Six asked multiple law enforcement agencies to inspect his jail.

KRDO13 Investigates obtained an inspection report by the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, which found multiple security and safety concerns, including “inoperable locking mechanisms,” broken air conditioning units, cracked windows, unsecured weapon lockers and separating walls allowing inmates to “pass items back and forth.”

To address these issues, Six moved all of his inmates to the Washington County jail for multiple weeks in September, while the jail was renovated.

“We went through with a drill and checked most of our ceilings and found out that a lot of our jails actually had sheetrock ceilings,” Six said.

He said the ceilings, doors, and windows were replaced. The jail also opened up its layout to ensure no cells with blindspots. While the inmates were gone, Six said all his staff were retrained. He said his staff is about half what it should be and told KRDO13 Investigates there are currently two jailers on shift when there should be four.

Limited Funds and Jail Staff

Six points to Bent County’s limited budget as a larger problem as to why rural areas can’t maintain or staff jails.

“We need more staff and we need full-time medical,” he said. “It's unrealistic, though. There's no way that (the county) could come up with the money to do that.”

“It's hard to find the additional funds,” said Bent County Commissioner Jean Sykes. “We don't have a big tax base. The number of businesses we have in our county are very limited.”

The Bent County Commissioners said the budget for the sheriff’s office in 2023 was $734,476. Sykes said unfunded state mandates, like requiring the purchase of body cameras, put small counties in a difficult financial position.

“The current budget makes it difficult,” Sykes said. “We have to remember that it isn't just the jail, but also our sheriff has had numerous mandates in the last year. They start really adding up.”

“The state will mandate something that seems fairly cheap like to Jefferson County,” Six said. “These bigger agencies $100,000 is not even a dent in their budget. To us, $100,000 is a month or three (of our budget).”

Sheriff Six says all of the Bent County Commissioners are doing all they can to keep his sheriff’s office, and the jail, flush with enough money to make the necessary repairs.

"I don't blame the commissioners one bit for I mean, everything they give us what they can and they struggle to find money just like we do,” Sheriff Six said. “So that's why we try and help house for other counties, but we wind up in situations like this."

Even larger county jails are not immune to jail escapes in 2023. The Fremont County Jail had two of their inmates walk right out of the jail, scale a fence, and enjoy a couple of hours of freedom on May 6, 2023.

Those inmates, Rodolfo Varelas and Christopher Wallace, were found by Fremont County Sheriff’s deputies later that day when the pair entered an apartment complex, where the deputies were already waiting inside.

"Human error. Human error. That was it,” Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said when describing how the inmate escape occurred.

Cooper tells KRDO13 Investigates a master control operator in the jail accidentally unlocked the door, giving the two inmates an opportunity to run.

He says it would have been completely avoidable if he had more money to hire full-time detention deputies.

"My turnover on the detention side is great. Right now, I'm at 20% of my detention staff unfilled,” Cooper said.

Just running his jail, which is a requirement for all sheriffs in Colorado, garners 61% of his total budget. Cooper says he would need an additional $900,000 to fully staff his detention center, something that is conditional on getting quality applicants, which has been lacking in recent years.

The republican Sheriff says all of the money to fund his jail comes from the taxes collected in Fremont County. He does accept a state-funded grant to help run his medical-assisted program, commonly referred to as a JMAT program.

Lacking Oversight

The jails, run by Sheriff Cooper and Six, share a common similarity: they, like all other county jails across the state, face little to no oversight. 

None of the county jails in the state are required to undergo annual audits or inspections by any oversight body. Colorado differs from 28 other states in the U.S., which all require some form of state supervision over them.

However, the Colorado legislature is working to fix that. In 2022, they introduced and passed a bill that created the “Colorado Jail Standards Commission.”

The group of 22 people includes elected sheriffs like Fremont County Sheriff Cooper with the goal of “recommending standards for the operation of jails.”

Their first report is due to the Legislative Oversight Committee on November 15, 2023. The whole purpose is to form best practices that are both achievable and effective for improving mental health treatments, expanding staffing opportunities, and finding ways to improve jail security.

"I have actually looked at my facility. There were a lot of things in the physical plant that needed attention when I took office and I depleted significantly my reserve funds to bring it into compliance,” Cooper said.

Proposed Legislation

KRDO13 Investigates spoke with Democrat Representative from Boulder, Judy Amabile, who introduced the Jail Standards Commission bill into the legislature last year.

"I think there has been recognition on the part of the sheriffs that it would be useful to have a set of standards that they're all sort of operating under,” Rep. Amabile said.

Amabile acknowledged that the creation of a governing body over county jails wasn’t because every sheriff was doing something wrong in their jail. Instead, its purpose is to find ways to improve as a collective body.

"I think the counties the sheriffs are looking for you know, if I'm doing X, Y, and Z, then that should be good. And if there's something I'm not doing that I need to do, maybe I don't even know what that is,” Rep. Amabile said.

Even if jail standards are put into law, there is still a debate about how they will be enforced. Currently, there is no enforcement body to handle jail oversight, meaning it's only up to county sheriffs to oversee and manage their jails.

No matter what is decided on the enforcement side,  Cooper says the only way to fix the problems jails are facing is by giving the smaller, more rural counties more money, not from the taxpayer's pocketbooks, but from the state's general fund monies.

"The fund is going to have to come from the state because the counties simply do not have the resources,” Cooper said.

So when will these new standards for county jails be implemented? Representative Amabile tells KRDO13 Investigates that likely won’t happen until 2025. 

When KRDO13 Investigates asked her why no action was possible during the 2024 legislative session, she said, “Things are slow, deliberately slow, when you're making laws.”

Our investigative team will continue to follow this issue when the legislative session begins in January.

Do you have a tip you want KRDO13 investigates to look into? Email us at

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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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