‘Dangerous felon’ escapes from a Merced County jail

Inmate David O’Neal Coleman Jr. may have seriously hurt himself escaping the Merced County jail, above, early Thursday.
Inmate David O’Neal Coleman Jr. may have seriously hurt himself escaping the Merced County jail, above, early Thursday. Merced Sun-Star

A “dangerous felon” escaped early Thursday from a Merced County jail but may have seriously injured himself on razor wire climbing over a security fence, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department reported.

David O’Neal Coleman Jr. was discovered missing around 4:45 a.m. Thursday from the John Latorraca Correctional Center on Sandy Mush Road, Deputy Delray Shelton said.

Deputies believe Coleman escaped through the roof of the facility.

Coleman was described as a white male adult, about 6-feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds with brown hair, brown eyes, and facial hair.

The Sheriff’s Department asked anyone with information on Coleman’s whereabouts to call 911. “Do not try to impede or apprehend Coleman as he is a dangerous felon,” Shelton said.

It is at least the second time Coleman has escaped from a Merced County jail. According to Merced Superior Court records, Coleman was sentenced to 16 months in state prison for escaping from the jail in 1992.

Coleman, a 40-year-old Merced resident, has 22 convictions in Merced County dating back to the early 1990s, according to court records. His convictions include 10 violent offenses, mostly involving domestic violence. His other convictions in Merced County range from battery and weapons violations to burglary and drug offenses, court records show.

Coleman was most recently arrested March 6 on suspicion of vehicle theft and drug possession, according to Merced County jail records.

He has six cases pending in Merced County for drug, weapons and theft-related charges, according to court records. He was scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing and trial-setting a few hours before he escaped Thursday.

Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum said, if Coleman is convicted on all charges and enhancements, he could face a maximum prison sentence of nearly 34 years.

The John Latorraca Correctional Center has been plagued with numerous escapes in recent years. The most recent incident prior to Thursday was reported in December 2013 when another inmate escaped through the roof and over the security fences, remaining on the run for several days before being captured.

Specific escape numbers were not available.

Typically, inmates chip through the wood-framed drywall dormitory and climb through the ceiling, which is apparently how Coleman got out Thursday morning, deputies said.

Sheriff Tom Cavallero said the jail was built to house low-risk inmates for no more than one year. But the jail’s needs changed in 2011 when the state implemented the Prison Realignment Act. “The truth is, realignment left us with a whole different class of prisoners than what the county jails were built to house,” Cavallero said.

Realignment, also known as Assembly Bill 109, transferred responsibility for lower-level offenders to the counties. The program was the state’s primary response to a court order to reduce the state’s prison population.

County inmates now serve much longer terms and the facility’s population has swelled considerably. On Thursday, there were 564 inmates housed at the center, including one inmate who is serving a 17-year term. Before realignment, that sentence would have been served in a state prison, the sheriff said.

In December, the state denied Merced County a $40 million grant for jail construction. Cavallero said the county is already “positioning itself” to apply for another grant later this year and has been taking a series of steps to improve security while waiting for the badly needed state money.

“We’re completing a project to improve the fences around the facility and are implementing a new control panel and security-camera system,” Cavallero said. “We’ve also contacted an architect to help us look at ways to harden the facility itself to prevent future incidents.”