Prison officials dismissed after inmate escape

One prison official has been fired and another has resigned in lieu of termination in the wake of a convicted killer escaping last month from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, authorities said Monday.

Corrections officials determined that a “supervision issue” contributed to the Jan. 1 escape of Keana Barnes, said Angela Whittaker, assistant to the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Barnes, 33, had been serving a 25-year manslaughter sentence for killing two men, according to court records.

“The policies are good and sound, but what we found was that the officers that we let go were not making appropriate rounds,” Whittaker said. Had the policies been followed appropriately, Whittaker added, “they would have prevented this from happening.”

Whittaker was not authorized Monday to release the names of the officers held responsible, but said one was a sergeant and the other a cadet.

New details also have emerged about how Barnes escaped.

Barnes, who shaved her head in the days before her escape, broke a window in her dorm room, climbed out and scaled a perimeter gate, Whittaker said. Corrections officials have said Barnes sustained a “fairly deep” cut to one of her fingers during her escape.

“We suspect that she used a combination lock to break the window,” Whittaker said. “Offenders have access to two combination locks that they keep on their lockers. We suspect that she put those two locks in some kind of sock and slung it at the window.”

It remains unclear how Barnes has managed to elude capture for more than a month.

“Until we catch her,” Whittaker said, “we’re not really sure what happened or how she got to the next place that she went.”

Federal and state authorities say they are still working various leads trying to locate Barnes, including some that have placed her in the New Orleans area. Barnes has family there, authorities have said, and she apparently has been getting assistance to evade arrest.

The reward for tips leading to Barnes’ capture has increased to $7,500 with a recent contribution by the U.S. Marshals Service, authorities said.

“We’re looking for her wherever it takes us, every lead, past behavior that might relate to where she might go and what she might do, we’re looking into it,” said U.S. Marshal Kevin Harrison, who described the effort as a “multi-state” search. “We’re the United States Marshals Service. I’m confident we’ll find her.”

The authorities are also aware of the possibility that Barnes is hiding south of the border, Harrison said.

Barnes is fluent in Spanish and fled to Mexico in 2003 after fatally shooting Perry Jennings Jr., a man who had befriended her, said Ron Ruiz Jr., the former New Orleans police detective who investigated the case.

“She’s going to do what she has to do to stay on the run,” Ruiz said. “I’d like to see her caught again.”

Ruiz described Barnes as a “remorseless” killer who shot Jennings in his sleep and stole his vehicle, pistol and credit cards.

Authorities were able to locate Barnes in Mexico by tracking credit card transactions; Ruiz said Barnes brazenly signed her own name on the receipts.

“It was a solid case,” he said.

Once returned to the United States, Barnes also was charged in the 2002 fatal stabbing of James Robert Shepherd. She pleaded guilty to killing Shepherd and Jennings in exchange for the 25-year sentence, Ruiz said.

Barnes’ escape is a “worst nightmare come true,” said Jennings’ mother, Marva Barnum. Barnum added that she was “horrified” by the public safety risk caused by the breach at the prison.

“My greatest fear is not that she remains free,” Barnum said Monday. “It’s that she’s going to leave more victims in her path. She doesn’t have a problem to take a life in cold blood.”

Barnes is described as 5 feet 4 inches tall, 140 pounds with dark brown eyes and short brown hair, corrections officials have said. She has a dragon tattoo on her back, the letter “K” tattooed on her left hand and two panther tattoos on her chest, according to authorities.

Anyone with information about Barnes is asked to call the U.S. Marshals Office at (225) 389-0364 or the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s Control Center at (225) 319-2300.