September 22, 2021

Minne Sotais

Politics Loaded For Bear

Sheriff describes relentless effort to capture fugitive after five-day manhunt

Ozark County Sheriff Cass Martin says he is thankful for the interagency support and hardworking, dedicated officers from the region who worked tirelessly last week to apprehend Missouri Department of Corrections escapee Jason Laird.

Laird, 44, who is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence in three Ozark County cases, was finally apprehended Saturday on N Highway in Brixey after a five-day manhunt following his escape from a work- release program he was participating in. 

“If it hadn’t been for [Douglas County Sheriff] Chris Degase, his officers, my officers and the assistance of the Ozark County/Douglas County Multi-jurisdictional Task Force Team, this wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it was,” Martin said. “We basically bird-dogged him until he gave up his steam. He fully submitted, and it is thanks to the efforts of all involved.”

Martin said about 25 officers from all over the Ozarks region helped with the effort, many who worked long hours and hunted down dozens of tips to finally find Laird.

“In four days’ time, I think I had less than six hours of sleep,” Martin said, referring to last Wednesday through Saturday. “I know all the other officers were working long, hard hours too. We were doing everything humanly possible to ensure that we kept the citizens of Ozark County as safe as we could.”

Martin also extended gratitude to the public for providing information to the sheriff’s department and to citizens of Ozark and surrounding counties who were an active part of the investigation.

“There were a lot of residents in the area sharing our posts and letting their family and friends know what was going on. When it comes to getting information to the public, it’s vital that people see these posts. Then they can say, ‘Hey, that’s in my area,’” Martin said. “It really worked to our advantage this time. People were on alert. They wanted to make sure their home was safe, their family was safe. So they were very vigilant and observant. That was helpful.”

 

A call at a ballgame that started a manhunt

Martin said he received a call last Tuesday, June 22, informing him that Gainesville resident Jason Laird had escaped from custody while on work release at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. 

“I was actually at a kid’s ballgame when I received the call. I immediately started trying to figure out all the facts of the case and any information about him and the incident with him walking away from the work release program,” Martin said. “At that point, we didn’t know if he was heading back to Ozark County, heading out of state – or what.”

Martin informed his deputies what he knew about Laird and the escape, and the law enforcement team developed a plan for extra surveillance in Ozark County that night. 

“I told them to saturate the area to the north, up Highway 5, looking for any strange vehicles, strange incidents… just be on the look out for anything that seemed off,” Martin said.

Martin said he and his deputies worked hard Tuesday night, but nothing came to light right away. 

“That first night we stayed out until 3 a.m. checking the area and all the perimeters, checking to see if anything was out of place and making contact with people,” he said.

 

Jumped a fence, escaped 

The Pettis County Sheriff’s Department, which serves Sedalia, issued a news release June 22 announcing that Laird, who had been housed at the Tipton Correctional Facility, had walked away from a work detail he was participating in. 

Laird was said to have been cleaning up the Missouri State Fairgrounds as part of his job when he disappeared from his post. He was wearing a white T-shirt, gray pants and black boots. 

Karen Pojmann, a Missouri DOC representative, told KRCG news station near Sedalia that Laird went missing sometime between 4 and 4:50 p.m June 22 “between counts,” presumably meaning times when Laird’s supervisor counted and checked that all inmates were still at their posts at the work-release site. 

Mo DOC staff members said they believe Laird jumped a fence and left his post sometime during the 50-minute stretch “between counts.” 

Officers reportedly found a rake Laird was using at the western side of the campground.

The Pettis County Sheriff’s Department was notified of Laird’s disappearance at 5:10 p.m., according to Pettis County Sheriff Brad Anders’ Facebook page, meaning Laird potentially had up to an hour’s head start before officers knew he was missing. 

 

Tracking dogs, a drone and a ‘literal army of DOC officers’

Tracking dogs were brought in and followed Laird’s scent for a half-mile west of the fairgrounds before losing the trail. Anders said the DOC staff called off the search for the night around 3 a.m. June 23. “Their dogs led us to West Country Club Estates, where a perimeter was set up… [Sedalia Police Department] utilized their drone to assist the literal army of DOC officers. Unfortunately, after hours of searching, the individual was not located,” Anders said in the post. 

Anders urged residents in that area to “remain vigilant, lock your doors, get your guns out of your vehicles if you are one to leave them in there and call 911 if you become alarmed or have information.”

He said that deputies and other law enforcement in the area were instructed to conduct extra patrols throughout the morning hours in areas where they thought Laird might try to hide. 

 

A stolen MoDOT truck

Shortly before 6 a.m. the next morning, Wednesday, June 23, the Sedalia Police Department was notified that a MoDOT maintenance shed at the fairgrounds had been broken into and a state-owned truck was stolen. 

The truck was described as a white 2013 Chevrolet Silverado Duramax 2500 with chrome running boards and Missouri license place 110189M.

Surveillance video footage at the MoDOT shed indicated that the truck was taken at 11:30 p.m. June 22, six to seven hours after Laird jumped the fence and left his station at the fairgrounds. 

“Given the timing of the theft and Jason’s disappearance, it is possible that Mr. Laird stole the Silverado,” said a post made to the Sedalia Police Department Facebook page. 

 

A stolen gun that turned out to be unrelated

The Ozark County Sheriff’s Department, the Sedalia Police Department and Pettis County Sheriff Brad Anders used their Facebook pages to inform the public about Laird’s escape with updates they’d received in the case. 

Hundreds of people in both Ozark and Pettis counties, along with areas in between the two, shared the posts, disseminating the information quickly. 

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 23, a few hours after the truck was reported stolen,  Anders posted that his office had received a walk-in report of a stolen firearm that had been left in a vehicle overnight in an area near the fairgrounds. 

“It is a Bond Arms Rowdy .45-.410 over under handgun,” Anders posted to Facebook. “[Laird’s] likely not in Pettis, but we will continue to be vigilant.”

The post was shared again by hundreds of people; however, that afternoon Anders posted that the evidence in the case made officers think that Laird was not responsible for the stolen gun. 

 

A flurry of sightings and tips, but one that made officers take notice

Meanwhile, in Ozark County, OCSD was receiving a flurry of tips and reported sightings of Laird. Officers worked out the leads, sifting through all the information. 

One tip called into the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department reported that a vehicle matching the one stolen from the fairgrounds was spotted at a motel in Lenexa, Kansas. OCSD posted the report but continued to investigate here.  

Martin says at some point he received information that led him and the OCSD officers to believe Laird was planning to return here – and that specific Ozark County residents were in danger.

“We learned that there were credible threats toward the citizens of Ozark County,” he said. “So that night I contacted the Ozark/Douglas County Multi-jurisdictional Force Team, and we set up surveillance at the home of one of Laird’s family members. But we didn’t see anything that night.”

Martin didn’t indicate what the threat was, but Laird’s sister, Robin Phillips, told the Riverfront Times that Laird had sent his ex-wife threatening emails, including one sent four days before his escape that said, “I’ve talked to the kids for maybe ten minutes since you’ve moved back there. Can’t even answer on Father’s Day. It’s on you. All that happens is on you.”

Another email from Laird to his ex-wife that was sent two days prior to his escape contained only “IAGTSYT,” an acronym that some speculate might stand for “I am going to slit your throat.”

“I’m worried about her safety and anyone else that may encounter him, as he is a dangerous man,” Phillips said in an interview with the Riverfront Times shortly after his escape. “He will take and do as he pleases regardless of the repercussions. He has no empathy. He is a sociopath.”

An accomplice, a truck, spray paint and a pair of boots

On Friday, Martin and the law enforcement team received another tip from a citizen that led officers to Kandace Newton’s home on County Road 330 in Zanoni in search of the truck Laird was alleged to have stolen. 

Court documents indicate that a search warrant was served at Newton’s residence that day in connection with the search for the truck.

The truck was found about 300 yards away from Newton’s residence in a wooded area. The tailgate had been spray-painted blue. 

“We’re unsure of who [spray-painted the truck] at this time,” Martin said. “I think they knew everyone was looking for a white Chevy MoDOT truck, and they were trying to throw a little bit of dirt on the trail, camouflage it. They probably figured no one was looking for a white truck with a blue tailgate,” Martin said.

Martin says Newton was aware of Laird’s escape from jail when he arrived at her house, and she is now being charged with helping him.

“Mr. Laird went to that residence, and she was comfortable enough to let him in, give him a pair of boots so he could have out of the DOC boots he had on. They knew each other and had been affiliated in the past,” Martin said. 

Newton reportedly told officers that Laird came to her house, dropped off the stolen truck and changed his shoes, and then Newton gave him a ride to N Highway in Zanoni. She said she dropped him off on the “cutoff road between N Highway and FF Highway,” according to the probable cause statement in a case against Newton. 

“[Newton] was aware that Jason Laird was an escaped prisoner and aided his escape,” the court document says. 

Newton has been charged with the class E felony of hindering the prosecution of a felony and was held in the Ozark County Jail on a $5,000 cash-only bond. She was arraigned Tuesday, June 29, before Associate Judge Raymond Gross. A bond reduction hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday, July 2. 

Martin said another woman who was at Newton’s home when the search warrant was executed was also arrested and held in the Ozark County Jail. Drugs and other illegal substances were reportedly found at the home. Martin says it’s likely that charges will be filed against the second woman as well. 

More tips that led to  a second accomplice’s home

Finding the stolen truck confirmed what Martin and the crew of officers had suspected: Laird was in, or at least had been inside, Ozark County at some point after his escape.

During the night of Friday, June 25, and into the early morning hours of Saturday, June 26, about 20 officers from the Ozark/Douglas County Multi-jurisdictional Task Force, Oregon County Sheriff’s Department and the Howell County SWAT Team continued working the case. 

A confidential informant from whom the OCSD has received reliable information in the past told Martin and OCSD Deputy John Russo that Laird was at the Searcy residence again June 26. 

 

A cedar tree hug, capture  and the eventual discovery of the truck’s key

“Deputies went to the residence and found Renee Washburn…who had a felony warrant for her arrest,” the probable cause statement says. “[Washburn] said Jason Laird was at the Searcy residence last night (June 25), but she had not seen him today.”

The woman was arrested on the active warrant. 

The officers then spoke with Searcy, who said Laird hadn’t come to the house at all. Searcy consented to the officers searching his cell phone, the statement says, and a message said that “Ghost,” one of Laird’s known aliases, was coming to his house. 

Martin said officers found a lookout “pallet” on Searcy’s property that would allow a person to view traffic coming from both ways on the roadway before it arrived. 

As part of the effort, Douglas County Reserve Deputy Greg Martin, a member of the Ozark/Douglas County Task Force, launched a heat-detecting drone into the air.

“[Laird] saw the drone and knew what it was and attempted to hug a cedar tree in an effort to keep his body heat from materializing on the screen of the drone,” Martin said. 

Soon after the drone was in the air, a citizen reported that they’d spotted Laird north of N Highway attempting to “flag down a ride,” Martin said. 

Martin says he believes it was Laird’s attempt to evade the drone that led to the sighting. 

Officers went to the reported area and found Laird attempting to cross the roadway. 

He did not flee and was taken into custody without incident. 

Laird was held in the Ozark County Jail until he was transferred back to Missouri DOC custody Sunday morning. 

At some point after talking with Laird, Newton and Searcy, officers received information that the key for the stolen MoDOT truck was located in a wooded area at a residence in Zanoni. The owner of the home was unaware that the key had been hidden on their property. 

Martin says Laird is not facing additional charges here; if charges are filed for his escape from the work detail, those charges would be filed in Pettis County, the site of the escape. 

Like Newton, Searcy has also been charged with the class E felony of hindering the prosecution of a felony. He was arrested and held in the Ozark County Jail on a $5,000 cash-only bond. He was also arraigned Tuesday and is scheduled to reappear at 9:30 a.m. Friday, July 2, for a bond reduction hearing. 

 

A previous history of evading and escaping

Law enforcement here had a hard time getting Laird behind bars last year when he led them on a cat-and-mouse chase for over four months that included multiple pursuits in vehicles and on foot. Once he was finally captured, he then attempted to escape from jail, former Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed said. 

The OCSD report from April 2020 says officers found two razor blades hidden in an empty electric outlet within the jail, and two screws and a large metal spring with one end straightened away from the main coil hidden inside Laird’s jail cell toilet. The tip of the straightened edge of the spring had been ground or rubbed on another coarse object to form a crude point, court documents said.

“Inside the shower area next to Mr. Laird’s cell I observed large amounts of grout removed from in between the cinder blocks,” OCSD Deputy Kyle Hannaford wrote in the report. “In between a certain section of the cinder blocks there was a hole completely through the pod wall into another space, and a section of ceiling was removed in the shower area as well. A portion of the concrete board was removed, exposing the popcorn ceiling with a hole through the ceiling.”

Deputies interviewed another inmate who had also been held in the jail’s C Pod with Laird, and that individual reportedly provided a written statement.

“Inmate wrote in a statement [that] Mr. Laird started working on the ceiling then moved to the shower using the mop bucket handle and spring as tools shortly after he arrived in the Ozark County Jail,” the report says. 

When officers entered the holding cell to check the condition of a previously damaged window, OCSD Deputy Jeffrey Lane noticed that the ceiling tile above the window in that cell was missing. Another officer checked underneath the bedding mat and found the missing tile Laird had allegedly removed when he was in the holding cell, the report says.

 

Why was he on work release?

Many have asked why Laird was on work release after his previous history of evasion and escape attempts in Ozark County. The answer isn’t clear. 

“All work-release offenders are carefully vetted by staff before being granted work-release assignments,” Pojmann told the news station, explaining that the process can include evaluations of in-facility work, background checks, demonstrations of pro-social behaviors and more. Pojmann pointed out that Laird doesn’t have any felony convictions for violent crimes in Missouri and “does not have a history of escaping from Missouri Department of Corrections facilities.”

Laird’s sister said that she’s sure he applied for the work release program with the intent to escape. 

“I guarantee, without a doubt, that the day my brother was made aware that his work release had been granted he went into planning mode. And he knows everything he’s going to do, calculated everything,” Phillips said in an interview with KRCG13 News. 

The Missouri State Fairgrounds, where Laird was assigned to the work-release detail, and the Pettis County Sheriff’s Department both separately said they plan to meet with the Department of Corrections to discuss work-release protocols, according to the news station.