Canyon County

Domestic abuse suspect who escaped tent jail headed straight for his victim’s home

Eric Garcia
Eric Garcia

The woman whom Eric Garcia is accused of beating lives just blocks from the Canyon County Jail. Her home was where he immediately ran to after escaping the jail Sept. 13.

Garcia’s escape from the jail’s tent facility raises questions about the risk of putting domestic abuse suspects in a less-secure area of the jail — a situation partly caused by past overcrowding.

Garcia, 37, of Caldwell, was the ninth person to escape from the jail’s tent facility since December 2015. Four of those escapees were there for domestic violence-related crimes. Garcia was awaiting trial on two felony domestic violence charges and had a history of parole violations.

National jail standards classify domestic violence as a crime that doesn’t endanger the general public, and thus people charged or convicted of such crimes are sometimes eligible for minimum-security housing such as the tent facility. To victims of domestic abuse, however, having an abuser escape jail or prison can be immensely stressful at best and represent a physical threat at worst.

The jail’s reliance on the tent structure and the string of escapes have been a long-running aggravation for Canyon County officials. The sheriff and jail staff have said they are limited in their solutions until they get a new jail. Voters have repeatedly turned down the funding required to do so, and until this year county commissioners were largely united against the idea.

Garcia’s escape came just two weeks after the county announced that $132,000 in security upgrades were completed at the jail tent. Garcia found one of the last vulnerable areas — the canvas on the higher portion of the tent wall, overhead of the inmates.

“This is absolutely a temporary measure. It is not and never has been a permanent plan,” Tom Dale, Canyon County commissioner, said Monday. “(The escape) points out very directly the need to have a permanent solution.”

What led to the escape?

A Canyon County news release on Sept. 13 said Garcia was apprehended “almost immediately.” Court records show he had time to run through two homes, including a stop at his victim’s residence, where he changed out of his orange jail uniform.

It is unclear exactly how long he was out of custody before his 11:15 a.m. arrest.

After the upgrades, performed over the past few months, the tent facility now has a hardened surface around its base. Authorities believe Garcia stood on a 3-foot privacy wall in the tent’s shower area to cut through the canvas at a higher point, usually out of reach. He then climbed a 10-foot fence topped with razor wire.

He had been in the jail since Aug. 31, when a woman told police he attempted to strangle her, punched her in the shoulders and stomach and bit her. Garcia denied attempting to strangle the woman and said he did not know how she got the mark on her stomach, according to a probable cause affidavit. The incident also violated his parole in a domestic violence-related witness intimidation case from 2013.

The woman who reported Garcia last month is serving as a witness in his case. Prosecutors in a new court filing say Garcia attempted to intimidate the woman “by shutting off her cell phone and escaping from the jail and going directly to her home.” Ending her phone service “leaves her without a way to communicate or summon assistance if needed,” a probable cause affidavit states.

After clearing the fence, Garcia immediately ran to her home, which he was forbidden to enter by both a no-contact order and a domestic violence protection order, court records show.

It’s not clear if the woman was home at the time. Caldwell police quickly spotted Garcia, who had changed into tan pants and a black shirt. Court documents say he jumped into a nearby canal and swam away, but was quickly found and arrested.

At some point, court records allege, he also fled through another random home.

The incident netted Garcia three new felonies — escape, malicious injury to a jail and witness intimidation — and misdemeanor charges related to the protection orders. His bond is now set at $500,000.

As of Tuesday, he was among 70 inmates held in the jail on pending domestic violence charges. Another 42 inmates were there for probation or parole violations stemming from an original charge of domestic violence.

Those 112 inmates made up roughly one-fourth of the jail’s total population, 426 inmates, said jail Capt. Daren Ward. Twelve of them were among 97 people housed in the tent.

The jail has a maximum capacity of 477 people. A total of 112 minimum-security inmates can be in the tent, where they are supervised by three deputies.

The county also pays to send inmates to other county jails. And on Tuesday, Ward said, about 200 people were out on release while awaiting trial who he believed may have been in the jail if the county had more space.

How does the jail decide who can be in the tent? Canyon County uses the National Institute of Corrections’ objective jail classification system — a nationwide system of classifying inmates as minimum, medium or maximum security. The National Institute of Corrections is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Among other aspects, Ward said, the system weighs whether an inmate is charged with an “assaultive felony.” Domestic violence isn’t considered one, and while someone suspected of that can pose a real threat to one particular person, they’re not necessarily a threat to the general public.

“I can tell you personally it doesn’t make sense,” Ward said. “It’s an assaultive crime. It’s called domestic assault, domestic violence, but that’s what that the national standard is, so that’s what we follow.”

State jail standards require the county to use some sort of objective classification process, but doesn’t dictate which one is used, said county spokesman Joe Decker. As of Wednesday, officials weren’t considering whether to move domestic violence suspects out of minimum security. It wasn’t clear if any widely adopted jail classification standards treat domestic violence suspects in a different manner.

Jail offers victims a rare sense of security

Garcia wasn’t the first inmate to cut a hole in the tent. On Feb. 1, 2016, Jose Coronado, who had multiple misdemeanor domestic violence charges, cut through 18 inches of insulation with a jail-issued plastic razor. He also interacted with his victim before leaving the jail, telling her about the escape plan, and she was later convicted of a misdemeanor for not reporting him.

Groups working to help victims of domestic abuse find the situation discouraging. Kim Deugan, executive director for Advocates Against Family Violence, works with victims to help them navigate the court system and obtain protection orders, among other services.

“They live in constant fear, and their only relief sometimes is when (abusers) are in jail,” Deugan said.

She said it is frustrating when victims move through the legal process, build confidence and begin to see hope, only to have an abuser escape from jail. Just recounting their situation to police and testifying about it in court is stressful enough, she said.

“Why go through this?” Deugan said of an abuser’s possible escape.

Jeannie Strohmeyer is a client service coordinator for the Nampa Family Justice Center and works with victims of domestic violence. She said there is a lot of fear that goes with testifying against an abuser.

Many times abusers have threatened to kill victims if they testify or call police. Other situations involve concern over the safety of children involved, or a fear of deportation, said Nampa Family Justice Center Director Criselda De La Cruz.

That fear is only heightened when a domestic violence suspect leaves jail. Most commonly, that happens when the suspect simply posts bail. But advocates contacted for this story agreed escapes unnecessarily exacerbate the problem.

Familiar arguments

Built in 2005, the tent facility was initially meant to hold only work-release inmates. Efforts to meet the terms of court settlements with the ACLU, among other internal problems, expanded its use to hold other types of minimum-security inmates.

The security improvements completed in August came with a price tag of about $132,000. They included the installation of an expanded metal lid over the kitchen area, a secure exterior door leading from the kitchen outdoors, a roof/lid over the recreation yard, and a 10-foot perimeter buffer fence with razor wire enclosing most of the tent jail.

The Ada County Jail, by comparison, is surrounded by a 12-foot fence with razor wire. The Ada County Jail’s outdoor recreation areas are inside of the jail and have smooth concrete walls that are 26 feet tall.

Ward said officials now plan to lower the privacy walls in the tent’s shower area after Garcia’s escape.

County authorities have argued for years over whether to fully replace the entire, aging jail or just expand it. Bond measures have failed to get the approval of more than two-thirds of voters, the requirement in state code for their passage. County commissioners and the sheriff have clashed over funding and solutions, though that has changed somewhat with turnover on the commission.

Garcia’s escape prompted a return to old arguments. In a news release, Sheriff Kieran Donahue said the jail’s inmate housing crisis is unreasonable, noting that it’s become apparent the inmates housed in the tent will “continue to identify and attempt to exploit weaknesses in the structure.”

Dale, the commissioner, said the escape is further evidence of the immediate need for a new jail. After the city of Caldwell recently denied a bid to expand the building, Dale knows building a new structure is the only option left.

“It is absolutely imperative that we build a new jail,” he said. “The need will not go away and the longer that we delay building it the harder it gets.”

By November, the county expects to receive the results of a $245,000 study by DLR Group to develop a campus security plan for the existing jail, and a master plan to phase in both security improvements and a new building. Dale and Commissioner Pam White approved the funding for the study earlier this year.

Ward said the county anticipates the group will recommend a new jail with 1,050 beds — more than twice the current building’s capacity.

Escapees with a history of domestic violence

Eric Garcia (Sept. 13, 2017): His felony record dates back to 2009, leaving him bouncing in and out of prison. In addition to his most recent arrests, he has a history of violating no-contact orders.

Notably, in 2013 he was accused of throwing a woman against a wall and attempting to strangle her. Court records state he attempted to convince his victim to hide her injuries and to have a witness change her story.

In that case, he was sentenced to two to five years in prison for felony intimidating or harassing a witness. He was released on parole on Feb. 26, 2016.

Ryan Tone (Dec. 28, 2016): He escaped by climbing over the tent’s partial kitchen wall, breaking through the kitchen’s exterior door. He was apprehended almost immediately.

Tone was in custody for violating his probation in a 2013 domestic battery and false imprisonment case that involved grabbing a woman by the throat in front of a child.

For the escape, Tone is going through a prison-based treatment program; if he successfully completes it, he may avoid serving a full prison sentence of 1  1/2 to three years.

Jeffrey Duvall (Oct. 1, 2016): He and another inmate scaled a 9-foot wall after breaking through an emergency fire door that led outside. They were captured within three days.

Duvall was awaiting sentencing on a felony charge of domestic battery with traumatic injury and an attempted strangulation charge. In July 2016, he attempted to strangle a woman and punched her several times, according to court records. He escaped the day after pleading guilty.

He was eventually sentenced to 2  1/2 to eight years in prison.

Jose Coronado (Jan. 30, 2016): He was in the jail on misdemeanor charges of violating a no-contact order and providing false information to officers. After cutting through the tent wall and fleeing, he was located a week later in Ontario, Ore., suffering from multiple stab wounds. His injuries led to an attempted murder case in Oregon.

He was sentenced to one to five years in prison for felony injury to jail property after the escape, but the sentence was suspended. He’ll be on probation until August 2020.

He had two significant past domestic battery cases involving grabbing or hitting the same woman. One, in 2014, was reduced to disturbing the peace after the woman told authorities Coronado was only trying to “take the fall for her” so she could raise her children. He pleaded guilty to a separate misdemeanor domestic battery in 2015.

The jail’s other escapes

Nov. 1, 2016: Brandon Luna and Ian Benoit escaped after climbing over the outdoor recreation fence. Benoit was captured immediately and Luna was captured within about two hours. Both Luna and Benoit were in custody for drug charges and illegally carrying a concealed weapon.

Oct. 1, 2016: Juan Cervantes joined Duvall in scaling the wall and breaking through the fire door. Cervantes was being held for misdemeanor driving under the influence and drug possession.

July 31, 2016: Abel Garcia escaped the tent facility by climbing an exterior fence during his outdoor recreation period. He climbed into a vehicle that was waiting for him and fled; he was apprehended the next day. Garcia was in custody for charges including illegally carrying a concealed weapon, burglary, providing false information to officers and obstructing officers.

Dec. 5, 2015: Jesus Cuevas climbed the tent jail’s outdoor recreation area fence. He was captured the next day. Cuevas was in custody for grand theft.