Two Inmates Escape Okla. Prison

Two maximum-security inmates with a history of escapes, including a man who raped and murdered his 81-year-old neighbor, fled from the state prison early today.

The inmates were discovered missing from their cells at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary about 5 a.m., said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. Massie identified the escaped convicts as James Robert Thomas, 25, and Willie Lee Hoffman, 21.

Both were considered dangerous, but there was no evidence they were armed, Massie said.

They were suspected of stealing a car in the McAlester area late in the morning, said Sterling Taylor, a dispatcher for the Pittsburgh County Sheriff's Office.

"They are on the road. And we don't know which way they are headed," Taylor said.

Sentenced to Life Plus 400 Years for Rape, Murder

Thomas was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Jessie M. Roberts, who had hired him to mow her lawn. Thomas, who was 17 at the time of the slaying, was sentenced to life without chance of parole for murder plus 400 years for rape, Massie said.

Hoffman is serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping and other charges.

It is the first escape from the high-security area of the prison known as H Unit, which was opened in September 1991, Massie said.

A preliminary investigation indicated the inmates removed toilets from the back of their cells, which gave them access to a maintenance crawl space, prison spokeswoman Lee Mann said. They crawled through an air duct, made their way to the roof and finally reached the ground and climbed over two fences, she said.

Third Inmate Caught During Escape

A third inmate attempted to escape but was caught between the two fences, Mann said.

Authorities said Thomas escaped from the Oklahoma County Jail in 1994. Hoffman broke out of the Payne County Jail in 1998 and from a private prison in Cushing in 1997.

Authorities in neighboring Texas are searching for seven convicts who escaped Dec. 13 from the maximum-security Connally Unit, 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. They have since been charged with the Christmas Eve slaying of a Dallas-area police officer.