Questions raised about authorities’ response to inmate’s escape _lowres

Lorenzo Conner

A suspected murderer who broke out of a state prison van as it drove along Tulane Avenue two months ago, sparking a chaotic three-day manhunt, was charged this week with simple escape and simple criminal damage to property for the brazen escape.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office filed the charges against Lorenzo Conner on Monday in a bill of information.

Just how Conner managed to free himself from his shackles and smash through the rear window of the van remains a mystery.

Conner, 24, had been housed at the Feliciana Forensic Facility in Jackson after being found incompetent to stand trial in a 2011 killing in Central City. According to a State Police report, he was being transported to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court about 5:15 a.m. March 31 when “he managed to forcibly break the rear glass of the vehicle” and bolt around South Telemachus Street.

The report by State Police Detective Raymond Hughes says Conner had been “properly restrained” in the van and that officers on the street found “shackles, handcuffs and other restraints that were used on Conner during the transport.”

Within days, State Police arrested Antonio Webb, a guard at the Jackson facility who was seen on surveillance video talking with Conner three days before his escape.

Webb, 37, of Wilson, pleaded not guilty May 12 in 20th Judicial District Court to a charge of malfeasance in office. A trial date is scheduled for December, a court clerk said Tuesday.

Webb’s attorney, Roberta Vath, said prosecutors have not yet turned over evidence against him. Jerry Shropshire, the Clinton prosecutor handling the case against Webb, did not return messages.

Barksdale Hortenstine Jr., Conner’s public defender in New Orleans, said he too has yet to receive information from prosecutors about the escape.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the report from police. I’m confused as to how they allege this took place,” he said.

In an interview shortly after his arrest, Webb claimed authorities were trying to scapegoat him for Conner’s getaway. He acknowledged speaking with Conner at the state facility, but only briefly. Webb said investigators have accused him of giving Conner a key, but that “I don’t have access to anything like that.”

Conner was captured April 2 after a tipster spotted him at a laundromat in Marrero. He is now being held at Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman keeps prisoners deemed to have acute mental illnesses.

He remains under indictment in the killing of 25-year-old Nelson Smith, facing charges of second-degree murder, gun possession and obstruction, for allegedly ditching the murder weapon. In September 2013, a judge found him incompetent to stand trial and remanded him to the state facility.

Hospital authorities reported Conner acted belligerently there, strong-arming other patients and masturbating in front of female staffers. In December 2013, doctors there deemed him “competent by default.”

He was returned to Orleans Parish Prison until August, when Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny ordered him returned to the state hospital based on the opinion of experts.

At the time of his escape, Conner was due to be arraigned in a separate case 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 handwritten love letter into her pocket, court records show.

Conner pleaded not guilty to those counts in late April, after his capture. Derbigny deemed him competent in all five pending cases against him.

His bail in the murder case was set at $1.35 million, while a magistrate commissioner set his bail in the escape case at $125,000.

Conner is scheduled to be arraigned on the escape and criminal damage charges Wednesday.

The bill of information filed by Cannizzaro’s office says only that Conner was in “the custody of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office and/or the Department of Health and Hospitals.” The van, however, belonged to the Feliciana Forensic Facility, the bill states.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Hospitals said Tuesday that she was looking into the outcome of an internal probe of whether the escape involved any breach of agency protocols.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.