Madera County investigates inmate's release after motorist killed

The Fresno BeeJune 6, 2014 

Walter Levon McDaniel

An inmate who was released early from jail and then allegedly killed a motorist 11 days later in a crash in Fresno became the catalyst for a Madera County grand jury investigation.

A law enforcement computer messaging system — and how it was used — was scrutinized in a grand jury report issued last week, which details events leading up to inmate Walter Levon McDaniel's release from Fresno County Jail last July.

While the report doesn't name McDaniel, Lt. Jerry King with the Madera County Jail confirmed that the arrests detailed in the report refer to McDaniel.

The grand jury reported the following:

The 37-year-old Fresno man had been wanted on a Madera County warrant issued in April 2013 for failing to appear in court for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Fresno police then arrested him on June 27.

On July 1, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office notified the Madera County Jail via the statewide California Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (CLETS), telling officials they had six days to pick up McDaniel, or he would be released from Fresno's custody.

When Madera County law enforcement didn't pick him up on July 6, he was released. Eleven days later, he allegedly killed motorist Ernest Grant, 55, after running a stop sign in Fresno while attempting to evade police in a stolen vehicle.

McDaniel was charged with murder for Grant's death. His next court date is Aug. 21 in Fresno County Superior Court.

Missed communications

What caused McDaniel's early release? According to the grand jury, the culprit was improper use of the CLETS system.

Law requires that the CLETS terminal be a stand-alone unit, monitored around the clock, seven days a week, the report stated. But during jail construction last year, law enforcement in Madera County said they used the CLETS machine for other uses, along with receiving CLETS messages, because some data lines in the building were unavailable.

This, however, caused a big problem.

According to the grand jury, a CLETS message erases after a subsequent message is acknowledged by a keystroke.

But King said searching through the CLETS system is possible, although law enforcement can only go back 10 pages — and that doesn't necessarily mean 10 messages.

One criminal history, for example, might be between six and 15 pages, he said.

King said jail staff weren't aware that using the CLETS machine for other uses could cause problems receiving messages. He also said jail officials can't prove anyone saw the CLETS message requesting that McDaniel be picked up.

The grand jury said Madera County Jail failed to act on three messages from Fresno County Jail. The report also said no evidence was found showing Madera County Jail officials investigated the CLETS problem, although a jail representative publicly stated an investigation would be conducted.

The grand jury recommended the following:

The CLETS terminal be placed in a secure, stand-alone area, used only for CLETS communications, and that it be monitored 24/7.

Madera County Jail staff be refreshed on protocol about how to monitor and use CLETS.

The Madera County Jail should complete and publish the promised internal investigation.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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