ST. FRANCISVILLE — Two men serving life sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola pleaded not guilty Thursday to a Sept. 22 simple escape from the prison.
Convicted rapist Melvin Johnson, 49, from Orleans Parish, and convicted murderer Aaron Francois, 24, from Lafayette Parish, are accused of crawling through two prison fences and eluding authorities for about two hours before they were caught without incident about a half-mile from the Mississippi River.
Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot has said a corrections official spotted the duo crawling through the fence behind Camp C and alerted prison officials as the two scrambled over the Mississippi River levee, behind the camp.
The inmates got through the prison grounds after they crawled through a hole in an inner fence, then threw a blue jean jacket over razor wire atop the second, outer fence before climbing over it.
During Thursday’s arraignment before 20th Judicial District Judge William G. Carmichael, Francois pleaded not guilty to simple escape while Johnson refused to say anything except that he was asserting his “Fifth Amendment right” against self-incrimination.
Carmichael entered a plea of not guilty on Johnson’s behalf into the record.
Both convicts were assigned defense attorneys Thursday and a trial was set for March 17.
Officials said last month the men had 69 bags of peanuts — Fontenot described them as the small, single-serving bags sold at convenience stores — as well as a piece of metal fencing sharpened into an ice pick-like weapon, pepper to throw the search dogs off of their scent and flimsy plastic bags.
Francois was convicted in August 2012 of robbing and killing a Lafayette cab driver on Feb. 23, 2009.
Johnson was convicted in September 1994 of aggravated rape and armed robbery of a man on April 17, 1992, in New Orleans and an attempted rape of another person in October 1992.
This was the first escape from Angola since 2010, when convicted murderer Roy McLaughlin used a “key” made from a battery to unlock restraints on his hands after he was allowed into a special exercise yard at Angola’s Camp J, the prison’s disciplinary unit.
McLaughlin was caught 15 minutes after he escaped.