FRAMINGHAM (CBS) — There’s an uneasy feeling in Framingham, where a fugitive was spotted over the weekend after he escaped from a maximum-security facility in Rhode Island on New Year’s Eve.
James Morales, 35, was awaiting trial in the 2015 theft of several assault rifles and handguns from a Worcester armory, but escaped the Wyatt Correctional Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island Saturday evening. Police say he stole a car in Attleboro and ditched it in Framingham.
Robocalls alerted neighbors in Framingham to be on the lookout for Morales.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” one resident told WBZ-TV’s Anna Meiler. “I think everybody’s thinking about it. I’m sure everybody’s extra vigilant in locking their doors, making sure their car doors are locked.”
There was a possible spotting of the fugitive when an officer spotted someone believed to be Morales driving down Hollis Street in a Nissan Altima Sunday. The car sped off, and wasn’t seen again.
But it wasn’t until two nights later that police put out recorded calls and alerts on social media warning residents to be on the lookout–and many are worried about why they weren’t notified sooner.
“It has the right of public safety, so I think that was information that should have been shared more up front,” said one Framingham man.
On Wednesday, the Framingham Board of Selectmen said in a statement that the town’s police forces were fully cooperating and assisting the FBI and Massachusetts State Police in the search for Morales.
“It’s been three days since Mr. Morales was seen in Framingham,” Acting Framingham Police Chief Steve Trask said in that statement. “At this time the Framingham Police have no reason to believe that the fugitive is still in town; but we also have no proof that he is not.”
The Massachusetts State Police have now added Morales to their Most Wanted Fugitives list.
The car police say Morales stole in a store parking lot in Attleboro was found in Framingham with blood, trash, and clothing inside, and with the Rhode Island plates replaced with Massachusetts ones taken from an apartment complex along Route 9.
Irving Street resident Vanessa Lugo said Morales showed up at her back door on New Year’s Eve, hours after he broke free from prison. She didn’t know who he was and didn’t answer the door, later learning he was likely looking for the woman who lives upstairs.
Earlier Wednesday, police responded to an area near Route 9 near the Natick Commuter Rail line for a possible sighting of Morales, but police didn’t find anything.
Authorities believe that, wherever Morales is, he is injured from his elaborate prison break, during which Warden Daniel Martin said he climbed onto the top of a basketball hoop in the recreation yard, pulled himself onto the backboard, used some sort of tool to cut through fencing, climbed onto the prison’s roof, and went through several layers of razor wire to get to a place where he could climb down the side of the building.
Officials are still trying to find out exactly how Morales escaped, and Martin said two correctional officers were placed on paid leave pending an investigation. The prison remains on lockdown as security procedures are reviewed.
The facility’s Board of Directors, executive staff, and Warden Martin will hold an emergency meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss Morales’ escape.
Jack Parlon, the union representative for those two correctional officers, told WBZ-TV’s Christina Hager that the problems were the result of understaffing at the privately-run public prison.
“There’ve always been a staffing issues there, and it comes down to pay,” Parlon said. “You’ve got to recruit and retain people and they can’t compete with state facilities. Security problems are a byproduct of high turnover there … When you’re working 60-80 hours a week, you’re going to be tired, with less energy and attention.”
Though they’re not sure how he got out, the US Marshals say they’re first concerned with finding him. At a Providence, Rhode Island press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island Jamie Hainsworth said Morales should “turn yourself in.”
“Our immediate priority has been and will continue to be to find James Morales and get him off the street,” Hainsworth said.
Hainsworth provided no details about the search so far for Morales, but said the fugitive has the potential to be dangerous and could be armed.
The FBI says Morales stole six assault rifles and 10 handguns from the Lincoln Stoddard Army Reserve Center in Worcester in 2015. He was scheduled to make a court appearance in connection with the weapons theft on Friday.
He was also indicted on charges he raped an 8-year-old girl in Cambridge.
A confidential phone tip line for the public has been set up. If you have information on the whereabouts of James Morales, you are asked to call 1-800-336-0102.
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Ben Parker reports