Police: Drone may have been flying near Pennsylvania jail before homicide suspect's escape

Michael Burham (Warren Police Department) (Jamestown Police Department)

Authorities are seeking information about a drone that may have been flying near a northwestern Pennsylvania jail before the escape of a homicide suspect last week, and they say they have increasing concerns that the escaped prisoner may be armed.

Michael Burham, 34, fled the Warren County Prison late Thursday by climbing on exercise equipment to gain access to the roof and then used a rope fashioned from jail bedding to get down, authorities said. Prior to his escape, Burham had been held on $1 million bail and was facing numerous charges, including kidnapping and burglary.

Lt. Col. George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the drone was heard by a couple of people — although he didn't know whether it was seen — "immediately adjacent to the jail" just before the escape. Surveillance video did not capture any drone, he said.

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"I'm not a big believer in coincidences," he said. "There could be a perfectly innocent and reasonable explanation. ... If there's not an innocent explanation, perhaps that assists us in finding him and also finding anyone providing aid."

Bivens also said recent information has made him increasingly worried that Burham is armed. He did not give further details.

Prosecutors in Chautauqua County, New York say Burham is the prime suspect in the May 11 killing of Kala Hodgkin, 34, and a related arson in Jamestown, New York. He’s also accused of having abducted an elderly couple in Pennsylvania while trying to evade capture before his arrest in South Carolina, and Warren police consider him "very dangerous."

State police say more than 200 state, federal and local law enforcement officers are involved in the manhunt and reward money in the case now totals $19,500. Police have said they believe Burham is still in the area more than five days after his escape, having found campsites and small stockpiles they believe are associated with him. Investigators have also said they believe he is getting help from someone and have vowed to prosecute anyone who aids him.

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Warren County commissioners, meanwhile, vowed Wednesday to make security upgrades and reevaluate procedures.

Commissioners say the law requires inmates to be provided with time in the jail yard, a room with a cage on the top floor, and inmates are taken there in shifts. While there, they are on camera monitored by staff, but "the amount of time that he got out of that roof was quicker than anybody could respond to to get inside the room," Commissioner Jeff Eggleston said Wednesday. Whether such monitoring was effective security was "absolutely" under review, he said.

"Everything associated with the yard, and the people inside, and how they’re observed is going to be reviewed and potentially changed," he said. The exercise equipment is being replaced with equipment "that doesn’t provide access to higher elevations," commissioners said in a statement, and officials were also going to review prisoner access to materials, such as the sheets used to make a rope, once the criminal investigation is completed, Eggleston said.

"Every element of their life in the jail is being evaluated and we’ll potentially change policy," he said. Commissioners had already agreed to allocate money to increase security on the rooftop complex so that "no one’s ever going to even think to try to climb out of there ever again."

The commission’s vice chair, Benjamin Kafferlin, said the county’s "rigorous internal investigation" would include a review of "every second" of video surveillance and interviews with people both inside or outside the jail.

"We’re not on a witch hunt, but we are going to seek justice, including if that means with our employees," he said.

Warren County Sheriff Brian Zeybell has said the response by police and guards "couldn’t have been any quicker," and in fact he believes "Burham saw red and blue lights within two minutes of leaving that jail."

Police have said Burham taught himself survival skills and had military reserve training, and the large search area includes difficult terrain and cabins, oil and gas sheds, and shacks affording a fugitive a place to hide. Bivens said 500 tips have come in since the manhunt began.

In September 2014 in Pennsylvania, a manhunt of more than a month and a half ensued after a gunman killed a state trooper and permanently disabled another in an ambush outside the Blooming Grove barracks. Eric Frein, of Canadensis, also described as a self-taught survivalist, was captured after a 48-day search. He was convicted and sentenced to death, though Pennsylvania has a moratorium on executions.

After the deadly July 1996 Olympic park bombing in Atlanta, Eric Robert Rudolph hid in the mountains of western North Carolina for more than five years, apparently living off the land and using survival skills he learned as a soldier. 

Authorities also suspected the serial bomber had help from sympathizers or others during that time. Rudolph, who also was charged in a deadly blast at an Alabama abortion clinic, was caught in 2003 after being seen scavenging for food near a grocery store trash bin in Murphy, North Carolina. He was sentenced to life in prison.