published Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Tennessee says it foils female death row breakout plot

This 2009 photo provided by Tennessee Department of Correction shows Christa Gail Pike. Authorities in Tennessee say two men, including a former prison guard, have been arrested in a plot to break out Tennessee’s lone female death row inmate, Christa Gail Pike.
This 2009 photo provided by Tennessee Department of Correction shows Christa Gail Pike. Authorities in Tennessee say two men, including a former prison guard, have been arrested in a plot to break out Tennessee’s lone female death row inmate, Christa Gail Pike.
Photo by Associated Press.
  • photo
    This undated photo provided by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General shows Donald Kohut, 34, of Flemington, N.J. Kohut and Justin Heflin, a former correctional officer at the Tennessee Prison for Women, have been arrested in a plot to break out Tennessee's lone female death row inmate. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday, March 21, 2012, that there was no imminent danger of an escape by the inmate, Christa Gail Pike.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KRISTIN M. HALL, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two men, including a former prison guard, have been arrested in a plot to break out Tennessee's lone female death row inmate.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm said Wednesday there was no imminent danger of an escape by Christa Gail Pike, but "there was plan in the works and money changing hands."

Pike, originally from West Virginia, was sentenced to death in 1996 for the slaying of a fellow Knoxville Job Corps student. Colleen Slemmer, 18, was stabbed and beaten by Pike and Tadaryl Shipp, Pike's boyfriend at the time, on the University of Tennessee's agricultural campus in January 1995.

Prosecutors have said the motive for the slaying was a love triangle with the two women and Shipp, who was sentenced to life in prison. The two carved a pentagram into Slemmer's chest, and investigators claimed Pike, who was 18 at the time, took a piece of the victim's skull for a souvenir.

New Jersey authorities on Tuesday arrested 34-year-old Donald Kohut of Flemington, N.J., who has frequently visited Pike in prison. He was charged with bribery and conspiracy to commit escape and was being held at the Hunterdon County Department of Corrections on a $250,000 bond and awaiting extradition.

A former correctional officer at the Tennessee Prison for Women, 22-year-old Justin Heflin, was arrested by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit escape and facilitation to commit escape.

Heflin, of Chattanooga, Tenn., turned himself into authorities and was booked into the Davidson County Jail on Tuesday on a $75,000 bond. Heflin was hired in March 2009, but was terminated from his job on March 5 after he was indicted by a grand jury last month.

The TBI said Heflin was receiving money and gifts for his role in planning the escape. However Heflin's father, Johnny Heflin, of Charlotte, Tenn., said his son told him that Kohut threatened him to get him to participate in the escape plot.

"From what I understand, the guy threatened him and said that he would kill him and his family," Johnny Heflin said on Wednesday.

He said his son has been cooperating with investigators and giving them information about the plot.

"He had every intention of doing the right thing," he said "He had told them he had made bad decisions."

Heflin is being housed alone in the Special Management Unit at the Davidson County jail for his own protection. His father worries that he won't be safe in jail because he is a former guard.

"My biggest fear is for his life," his father said.

Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said investigators received information about the plot early in the planning stages.

"Our investigators were able to learn about the threat early on fortunately," she said. "But anytime there is this sort of threat to the prison or the general public, we take it very seriously."

Carter said Pike, who is 36, faces a disciplinary charge and will likely face criminal charges for the plot. Carter said Pike is allowed visitors, but can't have physical contact with them and is separated by a glass window.

This isn't the first time Pike has gotten in trouble while on death row. In 2001, Pike nearly choked inmate Patricia Jones to death with a shoe string. She was convicted of attempted first-degree murder on August 12, 2004.

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