Inmate pleads not guilty in Merced County jail escape

12/27/2013 8:29 PM

12/29/2013 9:42 PM

An inmate who authorities say escaped earlier this month from a Merced County jail and was captured less than two days later pleaded not guilty on Friday in connection with the escape.

Stephanie Jamieson, a Merced County public defender, entered the not guilty plea in Merced County Superior Court on behalf of Jason G. Hunwardsen. Wearing white jail clothes and shackles, Hunwardsen appeared in court briefly Friday via video monitor from the Merced County Jail.

Judge John D. Kirihara ordered Hunwardsen, a 32-year-old Merced man with a lengthy criminal history, to return to court Jan. 6.

Hunwardsen apparently climbed out through the ceiling of the holding cell at the jail complex on Sandy Mush Road in Merced about 1:30 a.m. Dec. 16, according to the Merced County Sheriff’s Department.

A two-day manhunt ended just after midnight Dec. 18 in Gilroy when Hunwardsen surrendered to the Merced County Supervised Release Team, along with officers from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Agency and the Gilroy Police Department. He was carrying a loaded .22-caliber pistol but was arrested without incident, the Sheriff’s Department said.

It remains unclear how Hunwardsen made his way from the John Latorraca Correctional Center to Gilroy, some 70 miles away. Investigators have not commented on anyone who might have helped Hunwardsen and have not said how he obtained a loaded firearm.

Hunwardsen’s criminal history in Merced County dates to at least 2002, according to Merced Superior Court records.

A jury convicted him on Dec. 6 on felony counts of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant by a repeat offender and making criminal threats with a knife, according to court records.

Hunwardsen faces a maximum of more than 20 years in state prison in connection with the domestic violence case and up to an additional six years in prison if convicted of escaping, authorities said.

Livingston police arrested Hunwardsen on Aug. 8 in connection with the domestic violence incident, authorities said.

His criminal record includes convictions for vandalism and vehicle theft in 2002, resisting arrest in 2004 and assault with a deadly weapon in 2007, according to court records.

Sheriff Mark Pazin has said the escape illustrates the need for a new jail in Merced County. The week Hunwardsen is reported to have escaped the state rejected a request from Merced County for $40 million that would have paved the way for a new jail.

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