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Dennis Forrester was reading the Bible inside his cell at the Denver City Jail the morning of October 23 when the lock on his cell door all of a sudden buzzed and popped open.
"Basically, the lock malfunctioned," a jail spokeswoman later reported.
Forrester took it as a sign from God. "I'd just finished reading this part about how if you're ever feeling lost you should walk toward the Lord," he says. "So I just started walking."
Dressed in blue coveralls, Forrester strolled out of his cell, past a guard station, out of the detention area and onto an elevator, which he rode to the ground floor. Since the aging and overcrowded facility is located next to the Denver Police Department's headquarters on Cherokee Street just north of Thirteenth Avenue, Forrester tried to blend in among the guards, police officers and attorneys roaming the halls. The coveralls hid the sleeve of tattoos covering his left arm, but he hadn't had a haircut in a while, and his brown hair, he says, was "looking pretty shaggy."
Forrester figured his best bet was to pose as a repairman, despite not having a toolbox. As he hustled toward the nearest exit, he told anyone who asked that he was in the jail to fix the phones. It worked like a charm, and less than five minutes later, Forrester was loose on the streets of Denver.
Fortunately, he presented little threat to the public. A nonviolent drug offender, the 38-year-old Lakewood man was busted in February of 1999 with a syringe full of methamphetamine. In January of this year, he tested positive for cocaine, which violated the terms of his probation. Then he started dodging his probation officer. A warrant for his arrest was issued in August, and Forrester was in jail by October, awaiting transfer to authorities in Jefferson County, where he was scheduled to appear before a judge for a probation-revocation hearing.
Forrester's escape did, however, pose a clear and present danger to the city's controversial and costly campaign to convince voters to approve the construction of a new $325 million jail. The election, Denver's first all-mail-ballot contest, was already under way when Forrester made his break. The election wrapped up on November 6.
City officials -- including Mayor Wellington Webb and manager of safety Ari Zavaras -- had told the public that the new jail was necessary to replace the old one, which is so badly overcrowded that it may lose its accreditation by the American Correctional Association, a situation that would leave the city vulnerable to liability lawsuits. The proposed site for the new jail was a warehouse zone near Interstate 25 and West Sixth Avenue.
But neighborhood activists from the Baker Historical District -- the closest residential area to the site -- were rallying against the ballot measure, arguing that it was too expensive and would create a danger to Baker residents because newly released prisoners might walk through their neighborhood.
Opponents of the new jail could have easily used news of Forrester's escape to their advantage -- if there had been any news. Jail officials didn't bother to publicize Forrester's unscheduled walk. "It was certainly one of those things that in the middle of an election, you go, 'Oh, no. Why now?'" says C.L. Harmer, a spokeswoman for Zavaras. Luckily for the city, Forrester was caught twelve hours later and turned over to Jefferson County authorities (although escape is a felony, no charges were filed against him). Unluckily for the city, the jail bond initiative was defeated.
Harmer insists her office didn't keep the escape a secret on purpose, however. "There was no big coverup," she says. "We reported it to the police department, but we didn't issue any bulletins because there was no perceived public-safety risk. Certainly if this was a dangerous person we were talking about, we would let everyone know to look out for them. But in this case, we had informants and were able to track him down fairly quickly, and we believed that broadcasting the news could actually hinder our efforts to bring him back."
The city has no specific policy on whether to alert the public to an escaped prisoner "because it's such a rare event," she adds, pointing out that there have been only two escapes from the Denver Jail in the past fifteen years.
"As we understand it, there was malfunctioning of his cell door, and there was an indicator light that told the guard at the guard station that the door was locked when in fact it had opened," Harmer explains. "Basically, he walked out, walked past a guard who was busy in the control station and didn't notice him, went down an elevator and walked out of the building. In the city jail, unlike the county jail, we have a lot of people in street clothes, so it was easier for him to make his way through the first floor."
As for Forrester, who is now out on bond, he says he spent his twelve hours of freedom in a convenience-store parking lot about ten blocks from the jail, "just hanging out, waiting for another idea to hit me."