News 5 Guardians

Oct 3, 2013 11:01 PM by Andy Koen

News 5 Guardians: Five convicts fled halfway house in September

PUEBLO - Bartender Crystal Evans' car was gone by the time she woke up one cold morning back in January.

"I was without a car for almost two months," she said. "I had to walk back and forth to work, getting out of work at 2:00 in the morning, sometimes I was walking if Nick (her boyfriend) was busy or whatever."

The man who stole the car was no stranger to police. Michael Angelo Hernandez, 28, had been arrested handful of times previously for stealing cars, break-ins, fights and drunk driving. In fact, the police were already looking for him in connection with another crime when they caught him with Crystal's car. He was wearing a pendant filled with methamphetamines.

"This is not some young kid that lost his way," Crystal said in frustration. "This is a grown adult who chooses not to work and would rather go out and do drugs and steal stuff."

Hernandez pleaded guilty to drug possession and on August 29 was sentenced to 18 months at Minnequa Community Corrections. He walked away less than three weeks later.

No one told Crystal he'd even been sentenced. Upon hearing about his escape, Crystal seemed to lose faith in the criminal justice system.

"Why don't we all just go around and steal whatever we want and commit any crimes we want because I'm not going to have any consequences right? Nobody else ever does."

It's a similar story for Thomas Ortiz. He went for a walk in July of 2011 and came home to a crime scene.

"The police department was in my front yard, they told me I had a break in and they said they had suspects," Ortiz said.

Officers quickly caught 21-year old Lenny Rodriguez and arrested him for helping steal Thomas' TVs. He was almost a year into a three year sentence at Minnequa when he ran away from the facility two weeks ago.

Ortiz had no idea Rodriguez was even connected to the crime. He'd studied criminal justice in college and wasn't surprised by the light sentence or the escape.

"The system is kind of lenient toward these criminals and that's just the way the system works," Ortiz said.

Hernandez and Rodriguez are two of five fugitives still on the loose after walking away from Minnequa Community Corrections in last past month.

Phil Martinez, 30 and Tonya Leonard, 30 were both serving time on drug charges when they walked off the property September 5th and 8th respectively.

Anna Valera, 24, transferred from prison to Minnequa while to serve an 8 year sentence for a drug conviction when she failed come back from work.

In Pueblo, halfway houses are overseen by the Board of County Commissioners.

"One escapee is one escapee too many," said commissioner Sal Pace. "We're glad that you're covering this because you as the news media will help find these folks out in the public."

Since 2011, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice has increased its scrutiny of both Minnequa and Crossroads Turning Points, ranking them in a September 2012 report as having the highest risk of escape in the state. (A 2013 report has not yet been published as of this writing.)

Commissioner Pace hopes to curtail the escape risk later this fall when he and the other commissioners vote to award a pair new contracts for community corrections services.

"We included a whole lot in there about evidence based practices, about past performance, about holding these entities accountable with performance standards to give the community a lot of leverage," Pace explained. "If they're not living up to expectations, we can yank their contracts."

Minnequa's current contract ends December 31st. The other contract is being awarded will replace the bed space lost when Community Corrections Services Incorporated closed in early May.

Minnequa executive director Mike Holland declined to be interviewed for this report but said there are two oversight agencies for his halfway house. All of the escapes were appropriately reported to the county.

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