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Inmate caught after blaming Butner prison escape on COVID-19

By JONATHAN DREW, Associated Press

A convicted drug trafficker who says he escaped a federal prison in North Carolina because he feared he would catch the coronavirus behind bars has surrendered after 18 days on the run, authorities said Tuesday.

The Raleigh-based federal prosecutor’s office said in a news release that Richard R. Cephas turned himself in Monday at a courthouse in Delaware. He escaped in early April from a federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina, where dozens of prisoners are infected with COVID-19, according to authorities.

Prosecutors said he will be transferred back to North Carolina to face a prison escape charge.

Cephas was serving a more than five-year prison sentence after being convicted in Delaware of participating in a drug distribution conspiracy. Prosecutors say he was about two years from release when he escaped.

As of Monday, the Butner federal prison complex had reported more than 30 inmates with COVID-19 at three facilities, and five inmate deaths. The number of cases reported by federal prison officials last week was more than 50; the reason for the disparity wasn’t immediately clear.

A criminal complaint filed on the escape charge said Cephas messaged someone believed to be a relative living in Delaware on March 30 that it “shoundt be much longer,” adding: “keep this info to your self.” On the evening of April 1, the complaint says, he told another loved one by phone to contact someone on a secure line.

“I just want to save my life, that’s all,” Cephas said during the recorded phone call, according to the complaint.

Prosecutors say an inmate count early on April 2 found him missing.

Cephas spoke to at least two media outlets after his escape, saying he fled the prison because he has a health condition that makes him vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I take ownership of having to serve my time,” Cephas told The News & Observer in Raleigh earlier this month. “I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Cephas told the newspaper during a video chat that he was staying in a vacant house in an undisclosed location.

North Carolina-based federal prosecutors said his health concerns were no excuse for breaking the law.

“Let me be clear, Mr. Cephas is a convicted drug trafficker who was sentenced to federal prison for his role in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy . . . Mr. Cephas’ decision to escape federal custody is nothing more than an opportunistic move to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cut his prison term short,” U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon said in a statement.

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