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35 years later: 'Mecklenburg Six' prison break and its lingering impact on Virginia

'I haven't slept a whole night since 1984'

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) -- Six death row inmates on the run after escaping from prison: It happened 35 years ago in Central Virginia and remains one of the boldest and most elaborate escapes in U.S. history.  

It would take nearly three weeks to capture all six of the escapees. The fallout in Virginia, however, would last much longer.  

Leading the crew of escapees were the infamous Briley brothers of Richmond.

8News sat down with several corrections officers who were taken hostage that day -- May 31, 1984 -- to relive one of Virginia's darkest moments.  

The escape from Mecklenburg Correctional Center dominated the local and national news. Central Virginia was in a state of fear.  

Five years after their murder spree across Richmond that is believed to have left 11 people dead, brothers James and Linwood Briley would make headlines once again.

The Brileys, along with fellow inmates Lem Tuggle, Earl Clanton, Derick Peterson and Willie Jones, broke out of Mecklenburg Correctional Center -- a facility that was supposed to be escape-proof.  

"Going through my mind at the time?" former correctional officer Prince Thomas recalled. "I hope they don't kill me."  

8News recently sat down with four corrections officers -- three were working in the prison the day of the escape and came face-to-face with the escapees.  

"As inmates were going into the cell blocks, an inmate slipped into a bathroom adjacent from the control room," says former Shift Commander Larry Hawkings.   

That's when another inmate asked the control room to let him in to retrieve a paperback book.

"When he opened the control room, he overpowered the officer," Hawkins said. "He got into the control room, started hitting buttons, opening doors. That's how they got access to the control room."

That was just the beginning. The inmates, in a well-planned escape they plotted after studying the officers and their procedures over time, changed into uniforms and pretended to be guards. They radioed officers in other areas luring them to the building they now controlled.  

"When I got up to the top of the stairway, I saw an inmate I knew and he had an officer uniform on," Hawkins said. "So as I turned to go back the steps, that's when I met James Briley coming up the steps. He had a shank, put it to my neck, said if I tried anything, he would kill me.

"I thought my time had come, you know?"

Officer Prince Thomas faced a similar situation as he responded to the unit.

"When I get up there, I see (inmate) Joe Giarrantano in the control room, I knew something was wrong," says Prince. "I ran back down the stairs. James Briley and Lem Tuggle came up behind me with shanks. Shanks around my neck, through my legs."

The death row inmates had made weapons from lawn equipment.  

Thomas came face-to-face with Linwood Briley, the mastermind of the escape. 

"He had a lawnmower blade about like that," Prince said demonstrating the size of the blade. "With a rag wrapped around the end of it. He said, 'if I thought you were lying, I'd kill you now.'"

"They get me undressed and that's when I saw all the officers on the steps, lined up on the floor, going back to the shower."

Officer Coraleen Epps was in the control center when she was overpowered and taken prisoner. 

"I had just had a baby," Epps said. "She was all I could think about, dying and not seeing my daughter anymore." 

Terrified she was about to be raped and killed, Epps was dragged to a room and that's when she says one of the escapees Earl Clanton came to her defense, telling her quietly that he was a dad.

"He said, 'I'm not going to let anyone come in here and hurt you. You have my word,'" recalled Epps "And he didn't. He stayed right there in front of the door. I think Earl Clanton saved my life."

"After that, they locked us all in a closet, up behind the shower where the waterworks was," Prince explained. "I repeated the Lord's prayer, I know what I did. These guys were on death row, all of them in there for killing."

The inmates, now dressed as officers and using confusion with recent guard staff turnover to their advantage, ultimately convince more guards to let them out by pretending to try and defuse a bomb on a gurney they were rushing out of the building. But in reality, it was a TV they were rolling on the gurney.   

"They had blanket thrown over it," says Hawkins. "Fire extinguishers they were spraying at it. They were like, 'they really had a bomb.'"

They jumped into a prison van and disappeared into the night.   

Two of the escapees, Clanton and Peterson, were caught hours later just across the state line in Warrenton, North Carolina. The other four had disappeared.

Donald Baylor was among the hundreds of officers from other prisons who were brought in to search for the escapees.

He says it was like nothing he's ever seen.

"You're looking behind every bush," says Hawkins. "Every time you hear a door creak, you just don't know."

A week later, two more of the inmates were arrested in Vermont on their way to the Canadian border.   The Briley brothers would last 20 days before they were captured, hiding out in a garage in Philadelphia, not far from their uncle's home.

It would end the state of fear in the region, but it wasn't the end for the officers who had been taken hostage.  

The fallout: Officers struggle to cope

"I had to go on anxiety pills," Epps recalled. "I wasn't able to sleep. Very agitated, yelling, screaming at my daughter."

None of the correctional officers were seriously hurt during the escape. But even 35 years later, that day still haunts them.

"My wife told me, I would wake up in my sleep, grabbing my neck, talking in my sleep," Thomas said. "Even today, I don't sleep right. I have not slept the whole night since 1984. I go to bed at 11 o'clock. I wake up two or three times."

The officers also felt pressure and scrutiny from some of their peers who blamed them for the escape.

WATCH: Mecklenburg 6 State of Fear: 35 years later, corrections officers still haunted by death row breakout
Epps said the way she was treated in the days following the escape made her feel 'worthless.'

"I felt very unappreciated because I didn't give up my life, I was being blamed," she recalled. "They didn't care if we lived or died. They put me on a lie detector test and tried to say I was part of the escape and I had failed the polygraph and let me go."

Five officers lost their jobs. Epps was among them, although she says she wouldn't have come back to work at the prison even if she could have; she doesn't regret her actions that day.  

"I couldn't overpower them, to get them out of the control room, I did what I was supposed to do," Epps said. "My survivor instincts kicked in when they told me what to do. That's what I did.  

"I'm very blessed. As a result, I now have five children and six grandchildren. I'm blessed and here to see them." -- Coraleen Epps

Officers Hawkins and Thomas also went through days of questioning, but both kept their jobs and both ultimately retired from the State Department of Corrections.

They say the investigation in the days, weeks and months after the escape led to immediate security changes to try and prevent another breakout.

"Mecklenburg was supposed to be escape-proof," said Don Baylor, who serves as the head of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, a union representing prison officers. "They corrected things after that."

Among the changes: Keeping death row inmates confined to their cells most of the day, limiting how many guards had access to keys and blocking off stairwells where inmates were able to hide during the escape.  

"Mecklenburg was supposed to be escape-proof" -- Don Baylor, head of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers

They also installed cameras and started introducing new officers to the entire staff.

"Generally, it takes something to happen before we see our shortcomings," Baylor added.

Baylor has been vocal about his concerns recently in regards to the state's correctional centers. 8News investigative reporter Kerri O'Brien has been highlighting some of those issues in reports over the past two years:



Baylor says he hopes nothing like the Mecklenburg Six breakout will ever happen again. He says the state can never let down its guard, something that concerns him with facilities being short staffed.

"Staff shortages are recipes for unfortunate events," says Baylor.    

All six of the death row escapees were executed. Lem Tuggle was the final member of the 'Mecklenburg Six' to be put to death; his execution was in 1996.   

The Mecklenburg Correctional Center closed in 2012. It has since been demolished and the property has been given to the town of Boydton.   

CLICK HERE for more coverage of the 'Mecklenburg Six' jailbreak, including many of our reports from 1984 and a timeline of major developments. 

1984 COVERAGE:

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