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Grand Jury Declines To Press Criminal Charges Against Escambia County Jail


  An Escambia County Grand Jury Thursday returned a “no true bill” after seven weeks of investigating last spring’s explosion at the County Jail’s Central Booking Facility.

A “no true bill” means the panel did not find probable cause to move forward with criminal charges in relation to the April 30 blast caused by a natural gas leak on the day after floodwaters hit the facility. Two inmates died, and 184 other inmates and staff were injured.

“In order for a crime to occur under these circumstances, it would be necessary to establish gross negligence,” said State Attorney Bill Eddins, who seated the grand jury. “The grand jury reviewed and heard from numerous witnesses. They’ve issued a report finding that there is insufficient evidence to establish that any individual or any one person committed a crime or committed gross negligence.”

Based on the report submitted to the State Attorney’s office, along with interviews with witnesses outside the grand jury, Eddins says they agree with the findings. He adds that those conclusions do not agree with those of the county-hired law firm of McDonald, Fleming, and Moorhead. One issue of contention is claims that a heavy gas odor was in the jail prior to the blast.

In its initial report in August, McDonald, Fleming, and Moorhead said that the explosion was caused by gas-powered dryers in the basement, which were not bolted down. When flood waters flowed in the machines began floating, which in turn broke the gas connections.

The grand jury began its work on September 30. State Attorney Bill Eddins praised the members for their hard work and diligence – which besides the no true bill were also a half-dozen recommendations.

“The first recommendation is that the county turn the jail back over to the sheriff,” said Eddins. “We believe that this provides for the most efficient operation of these facilities. The second major recommendation is that the jail not be rebuilt on that location. And the grand jury recommended that a safety officer be appointed for each shift.”

The other three recommendations are: full disclosure of how the county made the decision to rebuild the facility’s basement following the 2012 flood; That Escambia County review its storm water control measures, and that Pensacola Energy review the location of gas cutoff valves, so that they can be re-located outside flood-prone areas.

Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown is attending a conference downstate and is unavailable for comment. But just after coming aboard in June, he said he’d been monitoring the situation. County officials are now searching for a new site to build a new booking facility. They’ll choose from among ten properties around the county. Brown said last June that there would be a number of selection criteria.

“We want to make sure that we look at moving it, I think, to an area that meets the needs of local law enforcement and the court system, (and) that gets it out of the flood zone,” said Brown.

Numerous civil lawsuits in connection with the explosion are being readied. Based on his time in private practice, State Attorney Bill Eddins says he doesn’t expect the grand jury’s decision to have any significant impact on them.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.