A murder suspect’s brazen early morning escape Tuesday from a state van touched off a disjointed, multiple-agency manhunt through Mid-City that continued into the evening with no sign of his whereabouts.
Lorenzo Conner, whose mental state convinced a judge last year to rule him incompetent and return him to an East Feliciana Parish hospital, somehow rid himself of shackles and broke free about 5 a.m. Tuesday.
Under the custody of the state Department of Health and Human Services, he was being taken to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court for a scheduled arraignment in a case unrelated to the murder charge he faced from a fatal shooting in 2011.
State Police said he should be considered armed and dangerous.
State troopers, along with the U.S. Marshals Service and Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputies, scoured Mid-City for the escapee Tuesday to no avail.
Conner, 24, was last seen breaking through the back window of a transport van near Tulane Avenue and South Telemachus Street.
His getaway left a trail of unanswered questions including how he bolted free and which agency was in charge of tracking him down.
Local law enforcement referred questions to DHH, the agency charged with transporting Conner from the Feliciana Forensic Facility in Jackson. A spokeswoman for DHH confirmed Conner’s identity Tuesday but refused to offer details on his escape.
U.S. marshals appeared to take the lead in the morning manhunt. But by afternoon, Deputy U.S. Marshal Doug Farrell said his agents were merely assisting Louisiana State Police and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in the manhunt.
DHH spokeswoman Ashley Lewis referred questions to Orleans Parish Prison, but a spokesman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office said he wasn’t sure whether his deputies were still involved.
About 3:30 p.m., State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said his agency had taken over the search after seeing “very little being done.”
“We’ll be deploying every resource we have,” Edmonson said. “We’re going to find him.”
He added that details of Conner’s escape remained unclear but that state officials would later piece together “what went wrong and what protocols were in place.” He said Conner had been in shackles but managed to remove them.
“Right now, we’re going to concentrate on finding the guy,” Edmonson said.
Conner was under indictment for second-degree murder in the killing of 25-year-old Nelson Smith, who was fatally shot at Magnolia and Philip streets in Central City on Oct. 27, 2011. Police officers responding to the sound of gunfire said they found Conner in a “mad dash sprint” and saw him toss a gun, court records show.
He also faced an obstruction count for allegedly ditching the murder weapon.
In September 2013, a judge found him incompetent to stand trial and remanded him to the state facility. He was diagnosed with “polysubstance disorder” and antisocial personality disorder.
Hospital authorities reported Conner acted belligerently there, strong-arming other patients and masturbating in front of female staff members. He was described as “evasive, difficult, argumentative and threatening both verbally and physically.”
In December 2013, doctors there deemed him “competent by default, as there is no apparent reason, i.e., mental illness, for Mr. Conner to be found incompetent to stand trial.”
He returned to Orleans Parish Prison until August, when Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny ordered Conner returned to the state hospital based on the opinion of experts who said he suffered from recurring paranoia and was too delusional to assist in his own defense.
Conner was due in court in New Orleans on Tuesday to be arraigned on charges of stalking and battery of a corrections officer. He is accused of grabbing a female medical assistant’s hip in June and dropping a three-page, handwritten love letter into her uniform vest pocket, court records show.
“In my mind I hear your sexy curves calling my name,” he wrote in the letter. “I want to kiss you on your soft beautiful lips and the moment you awaken bring you breakfast in bed along with a single rose and a poem I wrote for you. ... Do you think you can feel secure in my arms? Do you trust me?”
Conner once described himself as a writer who could be “rich and famous.”
Conner’s record includes an arrest on firearms and contraband counts in 2012; a conviction on cocaine possession in 2010; a conviction on marijuana and cocaine charges in 2009; and a conviction last year for simple criminal damage to property, for a crime committed while behind bars.
“DHH is investigating to determine if there was a breach in protocol and will update the public when more information on the incident has been established,” Lewis, the DHH spokeswoman, said in a statement.
State Police said Conner had a short haircut and full beard when he bolted. They asked anyone with information on his whereabouts to call Troop B at (504) 471-2775.
In a statement, State Police said that following the trip from East Feliciana, Conner “was going to be held at OPP for trial on previous murder charges.”
But his attorney in the murder case, Barksdale Hortenstine Jr., said nothing had changed in Conner’s status.
“I certainly am unaware of any court order remanding him to the custody of the Sheriff’s Office,” Hortenstine said.
Conner is due back in court in May for a mental status hearing in the murder case.
The search by State Police continued into the night Tuesday.
“They’re just following leads and any information they’re given by the public and wherever else,” Trooper Melissa Matey said.
Staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.