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Florida escapee had tried to forge release papers before

The relatives of victims murdered by two fugitives want answers as to how the two men scammed their way of jail. Now a big manhunt is underway, and an investigation into how the criminals used fraudulent documents that reduced their decades-long sentences. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

One of two convicted killers who walked out of a Florida prison thanks to forged court documents had tried once before to escape with bogus papers.

Joseph Jenkins, 34, was released from the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carabelle, Fla., on Sept. 27 after falsified paperwork bearing the signatures of a judge and members of the State Attorney's Office flew through the Florida Department of Corrections and the Orange County Clerk of Courts. But in 2011, a similar counterfeit document got flagged and didn't make it through as easily.

It is unclear who filed the forged documents for Jenkins and for Charles Walker, the other escapee, who was released from the same prison on Oct. 8. Misty Cash, deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections, said an investigation was under way as law enforcement scours Orange County in a massive hunt for the two convicted murderers after learning Tuesday of their release.

A reward of $10,000 apiece is offered for information leading to their capture.

Both men came into the Orange County Jail three days after their respective releases to be registered as felons, the Orange County Jail said. The men were fingerprinted and checked for warrants, as is standard procedure; with none listed for either of them, a voluntary criminal registrant form was completed and taken to the sheriff's office by sheriff's courier, and the men were again free to leave.

Investigators in Florida say two convicted murderers are on the run after authorities mistakenly let them out of prison. They believe forged documents filed in the Orange County Court are to blame. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

The first attempt to change Jenkins' fate of life in prison came in mid-2011, when documents were filed asking the Orange County courthouse to reduce his sentence.

Leesa Bainbridge, spokeswoman for the Orange County Clerk of Courts, said that the papers were passed along to state prison officials but didn't result in the release or reduction of a sentence for the convict. Bainbridge didn't know who filed the paperwork in 2011 or why it had been rejected.

"Just as we did this time, when that came through before, we sent it to the Department of Corrections. We're not sure at what point somebody caught it and said, 'Uh oh, we're not going to let this guy out,'" she said.  

The State Attorney's Office said it was aware of the 2011 forged document but had no comment on it.

The motion that got Jenkins freed on Sept. 27 was filed in August. Walker's came a month later.

Evangelina Kearse, the mother of the man that Walker killed, told NBC Nightly News on Friday that her daughter called her Oct. 11 and told her that another family member had seen him out of prison. Then a letter from the Department of Corrections arrived the next day informing her of Walker's release, said Kearse, who lives in Winter Garden.

"This letter, it was just unbelievable to me," she said. "I went into a state of shock. I was frightened. ... No one had contacted me about his release other than this letter and the phone call I got  late Friday night."

She said she went to the state attorney's office to see what had happened and officials there were unaware of Walker's release.

"I said how could this be that somebody masterminded this through the court system and no one there know anything about it?" Kearse said.

Read the forged documents that freed the men (.pdf): Walker Jenkins

According to Judge Belvin Perry — who gained fame as the judge in the Casey Anthony criminal trial and whose signature was forged on the documents — the inmates had to have had help from outside prison.

"Anyone with any computer skills can look at a document and take that document off of the Internet lift the signature and paste it somewhere else," he told NBC's TODAY show. "It's very ingenious. It's a breakout without having to break out."

A third Florida convict, Jeffrey Forbes, tried a similar scheme but failed, authorities said. Forbes is serving time for attempted murder of a police officer; he tried to use forged documents to get out of prison but was stopped in his tracks by an alert detective earlier this year.

Jenkins and Walker's release, which the Orange County Sheriff's Office was notified about on Tuesday, sent prison officials and prosecutors into a scramble to determine whether any other prisoners had been freed early.

The Florida State Attorney's Office said in a statement Thursday, "It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat."

Jenkins was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched home invasion of an Orlando father of six named Roscoe Pugh. It was Pugh's family that first alerted the State Attorney's Office to Jenkins' release, according to The Associated Press.

State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton said Pugh's family contacted his office, prompting them to review the paperwork and discover it was bogus, then notify law enforcement, reported The AP.

"We never thought of the possibility of this happening due to he was sentenced to two 50-year sentences plus life," Pugh's children, who said they witnessed their father "murdered in cold blood," told TODAY in a statement. "The event [has] always played over and over again in my head since I was 9 til now."

They added that Jenkins had "no remorse" for the fact that he killed their father in front of them.

Pugh's wife, Crystal, told NBC Orlando affiliate WESH.com she was shocked by the news that Jenkins, who along with his cousin had been convicted of killing Pugh, was on the loose.

"My whole world came down on me. I thought I would not have to see them ever again," she said. "And now I have to know he is free on the streets. It's frightening."

Jenkins' cousin, Angelo Pearson, is currently serving a life sentence for the murder at Wakulla Correctional Institution in North Florida.

After discovering the discrepancy in Jenkins' paperwork, the State Attorney's Office later found Walker's release documents were also falsified. 

"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," Ashton told the AP. 

Walker, 34, was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1999 slaying of Cedric Slater, 23, in Orange County. He told investigators that Slater was bullying him and he fired three bullets intending to scare him.

Both men have lengthy rap sheets which include arrests for drug-related crimes and violent crimes. They're believed to be in the Orange County area, where they have relatives and friends, but the Orange County Sheriff's Office does not believe they are traveling together.

"We have no indication to lead us to believe that they're together. They were released on different dates," said Capt. Angelo Nieves.

Walker's and Jenkins' cases are not the first in which inmates have scammed their way out of prison. There have been several similar cases in the past decade, including three inmates in Wisconsin who were charged with using forged papers to reduce their prison time in 2012 and a man suspected of escaping twice from Florida prisons in two years using forged documents. 

The Florida Department of Corrections said it was working with state and local law enforcement to return to inmates to custody. U.S. Marshals are also assisting in the search.

"We really don't want to point fingers at anybody and lay blame on anyone. Right now our priority is public safety and making sure these guys are apprehended," Cash said.

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