Halifax, N.C. — Dozens of law enforcement officers widened their search in Halifax County on Monday for a convicted killer who walked away from a prison farm on Sunday morning.
James Ladd Jr., 51, who is serving three consecutive life sentences for two 1980 murders, escaped from the minimum-security Tillery Correctional Center around 10 a.m. Sunday, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
A tractor Ladd had been running on the prison farm was found abandoned a couple of hours later.
More than 50 people and dogs from the prison and local law enforcement agencies searched for Ladd Sunday. Authorities called off the dogs after dark but continued looking for Ladd overnight.
"We saw the sheriff's deputies coming out from there, and we saw the sedans and vehicles coming back and forth, back and forth," said Vi Mullen, who lives across from the prison. "It was so frequent and so many of them together, we felt something was wrong when we saw that."
Mullen said she immediately locked her house and turned on her security alarms.
"The first thing we heard is that he was armed and dangerous, and we were kind of afraid," she said. "And we were wondering why would he be in a minimum security place serving time for murder."
A helicopter and several planes flew over the area Monday to aid the search, which included more than 60 Prison Emergency Response Team members and prison officers, as well as state Wildlife Resources Commission officers and Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement agents.
There have been several reported sightings of Ladd, authorities said, but none have panned out.
"I was hoping when I woke up this morning (that) he would already be caught, but no," said Esther Scott, a resident of nearby Enfield. "My family was kind of afraid, so we just immediately started locking doors and staying inside."
Ladd robbed and killed two men on a Yadkin County farm on Nov. 26, 1980, authorities said. He was convicted of first- and second-degree murder and armed robbery in 1981.
He became eligible for parole last year, after serving 30 years in prison. He was denied parole and is scheduled for another parole review in 2014.
State authorities said Ladd had a good record behind bars, which allowed him to be shifted to Tillery Correctional Center.
Killers can be in minimum security
All North Carolina prison inmates, with the exception of those sentenced to death or life without parole, have the opportunity to work their way into minimum-security custody to prepare for their eventual release, Acree said. They must be within five years of their release date or parole.
There are 382 inmates with life sentences in minimum custody statewide, he said. All of them were convicted for crimes committed before November 1994, when state law allowed for parole.
Tillery Correctional Center’s main mission is housing life-sentence inmates who are promoted to minimum custody, he said, noting that many of them work in prison farming operations.
The Caledonia and Odom prison farms aren't fenced. Acree said a security guard was supposed to periodically check on Ladd as he worked on the farm.
"Inmate farm workers are supervised, but not continuously monitored," Acree said in a statement.
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker said no prison inmates wear ankle bracelets or other electronic monitoring devices.
"We use them for probationers or parolees, but not inmates," Walker said in a statement.
The last time Tillery Correctional Center inmates escaped was in December 2007, when two inmates who were serving less than life sentences left a work assignment at Odom Prison Farm and were apprehended in South Carolina two days later, authorities said.
Ladd is described as white, with graying hair and a beard, which authorities said he might have shaved off. He stands 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs about 140 pounds and has blue eyes. He was last seen wearing green pants and a white t-shirt, but may also have a pair of black pants.
Anyone with information on Ladd's whereabouts is asked to call local law enforcement or the Tillery Correctional Center at 252-826-4165.
"They have been showing pictures around, so I know who to look for," Scott said.
Mullen said she, too, is keeping her eyes open and her doors locked.
"We'll have some restless nights," she said. "Last night was a terrible night for some of us around here."