April 17th, 2024

Police track down escaped Idaho prison gang member and accomplice, say pair may have killed 2 on run

By Gene Johnson And Mark Thiessen, The Associated Press on March 21, 2024.

This photo provided by Boise Police Dept. shows surveillance of a vehicle near the scene of a shooting at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, Wednesday, March 20 2024 in Boise, Idaho. Police said officers were involved in a shooting at the hospital early Wednesday and are searching for two suspects, one of them a prison inmate who escaped from the campus. (Boise Police Dept. via AP).

Police on Thursday arrested two white supremacist gang members – an Idaho prison inmate and the accomplice who helped him escape – following an attack on corrections officers at a Boise hospital, and investigators are looking into whether they killed two people while on the run.

Skylar Meade, the escaped inmate, and Nicholas Umphenour, the man who police say shot two Idaho corrections officers early Wednesday to break Meade out of custody, were arrested during a traffic stop Thursday afternoon in Twin Falls, about 130 miles (209km) from where they escaped.

Authorities said during a news conference Thursday that they were investigating two homicides, in Nez Perce and Clearwater counties. Police found shackles at the scene of one of the killings and “that’s one of the ways we tied them together,” Idaho State Police Lt. Colonel Sheldon Kelley said.

Meade, 31, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017 for shooting at a sheriff’s sergeant during a high-speed chase. Umphenour was released from the same prison – the Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Kuna, south of Boise – in January. The two had at times been housed together, were both members of the Aryan Knights prison gang, and had mutual friends in and out of prison, officials said.

The attack on the Idaho Department of Correction officers came just after 2 a.m. Wednesday in the ambulance bay Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, as they were preparing to return Meade to the prison. He had been brought to the hospital earlier in the night because he injured himself, officials said.

One officer shot by Umphenour was in critical but stable condition, police said, while the second wounded officer had serious but non-life-threatening injuries. A third corrections officer also sustained non-life-threatening injuries when a responding police officer – mistakenly believing the shooter was still in the emergency room and seeing an armed person near the entrance – opened fire.

Correction Director Josh Tewalt said Thursday one guard had been released from the hospital, and the other two are stable and improving.

The department is reviewing its policies and practices in light of the escape, he said.

“We’re channeling every resource we have to trying to understand exactly how they went about planning it,” Tewalt said.

The Aryan Knights formed in the mid-1990s in Idaho’s prison system to organize criminal activity for a select group of white people in custody as well as outside prison walls, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in the district of Idaho.

In 2021, Harlan Hale, described as a leader in the group, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a plot to traffic drugs behind bars and use violence to collect unpaid debts. In a court documents, federal prosecutors described the Aryan Knights as a “scourge” within the state’s prison system.

“The hate-fueled gang engages in many types of criminal activity and casts shadows of intimidation, addiction, and violence over prison life,” prosecutors wrote.

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League counted 75 different white supremacist prison gangs in federal or local facilities in at least 38 states. The ADL said two of the largest such groups, the Aryan Circle and Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, had at least 1,500 members.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the ADL’s Center on Extremism, estimates that the Aryan Knights has approximately 150 members behind bars and roughly 100 more on the streets. He said it operates in other states, including Washington and Oregon.

“With all white supremacist prison gangs, the ideology takes a backseat to the organized crime. That’s just a given,” he said. “They use that as a sort of a glue to help keep them together and help keep them loyal to the gang.”

Pitcavage said white supremacist prison gangs are a very different phenomenon from neo-Nazi groups like Aryan Nations, which had a compound in north Idaho at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meade had been held in a type of solitary confinement called administrative segregation because officials deemed him a severe security risk, Tewalt said.

Meade had been escorted in the ambulance and at the hospital by a uniformed, unarmed officer wearing a ballistic vest, tailed by two armed officers, Correction officials said.

The attack came amid a wave of gun violence at hospitals and medical centers, which have struggled to adapt to the threats.

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Johnson reported from Seattle and Thiessen from Anchorage, Alaska. Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington; Associated Press researcher Rhonda Schafner in New York; and Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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