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Pennsylvania prosecutor asks the state to take over the probe into a homicide suspect’s jail escape

Jul 18, 2023, 2:56 PM

This image provided by Pennsylvania State Police shows homicide suspect Michael Burham after he was...

This image provided by Pennsylvania State Police shows homicide suspect Michael Burham after he was recaptured on July 15, 2023. Burham was captured nine days after he fled the Warren County jail by climbing on exercise equipment, going through a window and scaling down a rope fashioned from jail bedding, authorities said. The county prosecutor on Tuesday, July 18, asked the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office to take over the investigation into the escape because of the possibility that jail staff might be charged with criminal negligence. (Pennsylvania State Police via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Pennsylvania State Police via AP)

WARREN, Pa. (AP) — A county prosecutor in Pennsylvania said Tuesday that he has asked the state attorney general’s office to take over the investigation surrounding a homicide suspect’s escape because of the possibility that jail staff might be charged with criminal negligence.

Warren County District Attorney Rob Greene said reports from the Warren city police investigation included information that “could possibly implicate” inmates and staff at the county jail as well as others in the July 6 escape of Michael Burham, 34. He was recaptured Saturday after a barking dog alerted a couple to his presence on their property.

Greene said he has seen nothing to indicate staff members participated or were complicit in the escape in which authorities say Burham climbed on exercise equipment, went through a window and scaled down a rope fashioned from jail bedding. But Green said staff could face criminal charges “if they were negligent in their duties to make sure Burham or other inmates did not escape.”

Greene said because he considers many jail staff in the small county his friends, and because he’s on the prison board, he asked the attorney general’s office to take over the escape case against Burham and any related case brought against anyone else.

Greene, who earlier also sought a state corrections department investigation, said he was “floored” at the idea of staff having some culpability. He also said he is “livid” about the negative attention the case had brought to the area. He added, however, that he didn’t believe there would be a problem with continued operations at the jail, emphasizing that his concerns involved only “negligence issues, complacency issues.”

“I can’t imagine, for the life of me, that any of those jail guards that might be under investigation at this point wouldn’t be straightening themselves up,” he said.

Greene acknowledged having potential suspects in mind but declined to say who or how many. He also declined to comment on whether anyone knew about Burham collecting sheets for his escape, saying it would be “an issue” in the attorney general’s investigation.

District Attorney Jason Schmidt, of Chautauqua County, New York, said in June that Burham was the prime suspect in the May 11 killing of Kala Hodgkin, 34, and a related arson in Jamestown, New York. Authorities also accuse him of abducting an older couple in Pennsylvania while trying to evade capture before his arrest in South Carolina. New York officials said they opted to let Pennsylvania handle the initial prosecution as they probe the killing and arson.

Greene said he will continue to handle the Pennsylvania kidnapping and burglary case that Burham was being held on.

Greene’s remarks came during the Crime Stoppers presentation of a $2,000 reward check to “Tucker the dog” and his owners, Ron and Cindy Ecklund, for their role in the recapture of Burham. Tucker, oblivious to the ceremony, barked as he tried several times to get Ron Ecklund to throw a new tennis ball for him to chase.

Cindy Ecklund said she and her husband recognized Burham as soon as they encountered him at the rear of their property. They tried to calmly but quickly withdraw in a golf cart they were using while calling 911. She said their dog not only alerted them to Burham’s presence but his aggressive barking once they encountered him likely intimidated the suspect.

“I think he was a little afraid of what Tucker might do,” she said.

Burham fled but was captured less than two hours later, looking wet, dirty and “worn-out,” police said.

The hero dog was sporting a new collar Tuesday and had a bucket of tennis balls, a few new toys, some treats from a well-wisher and a coupon for a spa day. And, “there is a ribeye steak in the fridge waiting for him after all this is over,” Ecklund said.

“He was protecting us, and you can’t ask for a better best friend than that,” she said.

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Pennsylvania prosecutor asks the state to take over the probe into a homicide suspect’s jail escape