Cass inmate used makeshift key to escape, says he felt like 'kid at Christmastime' as he picked lock of leg irons

FARGO - An inmate who escaped custody while being escorted to a transport van at the Cass County Courthouse on Oct. 12 used a makeshift key to undo his handcuffs and leg restraints, according to internal investigative reports and the prosecutor.

Francisco Ayala Jr.
Francisco Ayala Jr., 25, of West Fargo, used this 1.7-inch-long makeshift key made with a pencil and a wire to undo his wrist and ankle restraints when he escaped from custody at the Cass County Courthouse on Oct. 12, according to investigative reports. Photo special to The Forum

FARGO - An inmate who escaped custody while being escorted to a transport van at the Cass County Courthouse on Oct. 12 used a makeshift key to undo his handcuffs and leg restraints, according to internal investigative reports and the prosecutor.

Francisco Ayala Jr., 25, of West Fargo, pleaded guilty to a felony escape charge Monday in Cass County District Court.

Ayala also faced cocaine and methamphetamine possession charges, but they were dismissed because he has been indicted in federal court, prosecutor Tristan Van de Streek said.

Judge John Irby sentenced Ayala to 18 months in prison, which was between the three-year sentence recommended by Van de Streek and the one-year sentence sought by defense attorney Charles Sheeley. Ayala received credit for 98 days in jail.

Van de Streek, an assistant Cass County state's attorney, said Ayala's escape appeared to be premeditated, noting he had a makeshift key "that was apparently effective."


Ayala escaped after a bail review hearing on the morning of Oct. 12. He made a break from the sheriff's deputy escorting him and ran west of the courthouse. He was on the loose for less than an hour before authorities found him hiding in an apartment house and took him into custody without incident.

Sheeley explained Ayala's state of mind at the time, saying his final bail review hearing hadn't gone well and that he was in a stressful situation and felt escape was his only option.

"He realized he made a huge mistake" and surrendered to authorities without a fight when they found him, Sheeley said.

Probe details escape

An internal investigation into how the escape happened was completed, but Sheriff Paul Laney hasn't decided on possible disciplinary action or procedural changes, sheriff's Capt. Rick Majerus said.

According to reports from the internal investigation:

When Ayala was captured at 1114 2nd Ave. S., he wasn't handcuffed or wearing leg irons. In the apartment, an officer noticed a piece of wood with a piece of metal wire wrapped around it on the bed next to the handcuffs, leg irons and an envelope bearing Ayala's name.

Deputy Frank Froysland told the internal investigator that Ayala was persistent that day about appearing in court in person and not by interactive television. Froysland said he searched Ayala prior to handcuffing him.


Deputy Richard Garvey said he double-locked Ayala's leg irons. Ayala asked to return to his cell to retrieve some legal documents, but his request was denied; another deputy got the envelope for him and shook it out, and there was no contraband inside.

Ayala was the first defendant to appear in Courtroom 6 that morning. After Ayala's appearance, Froysland escorted him to the courthouse basement into a secure, locked cell. At Sgt. DuWayne Nitschke's request, Froysland came back down to the holding area and loosened Ayala's right handcuff because it felt a little tight.

Ayala used the restroom in the holding area, and Froysland escorted him back to the holding cell. Ayala later denied tampering with the restraints in the bathroom.

Deputy Pete Wold, who was escorting Ayala to the van when he escaped, told the investigator that Ayala was handcuffed in front and wearing leg irons and there was nothing unusual about his walk. He said he didn't recheck Ayala's restraints before leading him out to the van.

As the two were walking, Wold told Ayala to watch his step so he wouldn't slip on ice. When Wold turned away for a brief second to open the van's second door, Ayala took off.

Wold said he witnessed what looked like Ayala kicking his shoes off, pulling one leg iron off of his one heel and lifting the second iron up his calf.

'Did I really do that?'

In an interview 10 days after his escape and capture, Ayala told the investigator that he fashioned the makeshift key - referred to in the report as a "homemade key" - from two springs and a broken pencil that he found on the floor of the courthouse holding cell. He indicated he was in shock when he was able to unlock the leg iron, describing his thoughts as being "like a kid at Christmastime, thinking did I really do that?" the investigative report states.


Ayala said when he got outside of the courthouse and Wold told him to hop into the van, he bent down and used the makeshift key to unlock the leg iron.

Ayala said he didn't know where the wire came from, but he recommended that jail staff look at the laundry bags because the springs he found looked similar to those found inside the black closure ties on the laundry bags delivered to the jail inmates for their laundry.

Cass County Sheriff's Detective Patti Wasmuth raised doubts about Ayala's story, writing in her report that it seemed to her "the tool would have taken more time to assemble than the amount of time Ayala had spent in court holding." Ayala said he didn't bring the springs or pencil with him to the courthouse, saying again that he found them in the holding cell.

Ayala indicated the main reason he tried to run was so he could feel better about being in jail and give the court a reason to say he was a flight risk, the report states. However, Froysland said Ayala made a statement to him following his capture that he went to the courthouse instead of appearing via ITV because "he wanted to beat the crap out of the guy who squealed on him," the report states.

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