James Douglas Mitchell saw a way out of prison in the front of the transport van.

It was hot morning for May in Minnesota, with temperatures rising toward the low 80s. Mitchell and eight other inmates were on their way from Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud to other prisons across the state. The driver, Sgt. Joseph Strunk, stopped at Lino Lakes prison, where some would be dropped off, and the inmates watched Strunk exit the van and disappear into a dark garage.

Anthony Alexander, an inmate in the van, said that Mitchell fixated on an opportunity to escape.

“Man, I can’t believe this,” he recalled Mitchell saying, motioning to the ignition. “Man left his keys in there!”

Mitchell had been complaining about the 12 years he faced in prison for assault. “This is my chance to get away,” he said, according to Alexander.

“This is your chance to get away, but you’ve got us in here!” pleaded Alexander, a 52-year-old serving a 28-month stint for assault, scheduled to be released next fall.

 

 

But Mitchell, 26, slid open the unlocked cab window that separated the prisoners from the driver’s seat. He dove inside and hit the gas — setting into motion the largest prison escape in Minnesota’s recent history, and a manhunt that would span six hours and multiple cities, shutting down a north Minneapolis neighborhood in the process.

On Monday, Mitchell was charged with escaping from custody and four counts of kidnapping, all felonies. If convicted, he faces a potentially long prison sentence; the charges combined carry a maximum sentence of 85 years.

Interviews with several inmates who were present and the criminal charges filed this week show how Mitchell was able to escape — and why multiple prisoners say they feared for their lives.

In a statement to investigators, Strunk, the driver of the van, said he had left the van running because it was hot and he didn’t want the passengers to overheat. The Department of Corrections is still investigating the incident, but spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said it’s not against policy to leave a vehicle running, “and is often necessary due to weather conditions such as heat or cold.” She said the department is now installing automatic safeguards into transport vehicles that will shut off the vehicle if an attempt is made to drive them.

She said Strunk was not fired but no longer works for the department.