Authorities in Illinois and Indiana searched Friday for a convicted murderer who was mistakenly released after a Chicago court appearance, as questions swirled about what caused the mix-up and why he was brought from his Indiana prison cell in the first place.
Steven L. Robbins, 44, was serving a 60-year sentence for murder in Indiana and was brought to Chicago this week in a separate case involving drug and armed violence charges — a case that a prosecutor revealed Friday had actually been dismissed in 2007.
After appearing before a Cook County Circuit Court judge, Robbins was taken to the Cook County Jail on Chicago's South Side and was released hours later, instead of being sent back to Indiana to continue his murder sentence. The public was not alerted that he was on the loose for about 24 hours.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez on Friday raised the possibility that though the charges in Illinois were dismissed, a clerical error might have kept law enforcement authorities from seeing that the arrest warrant had been quashed. Robbins had written several letters to the court demanding to face trial, she said.
"The Cook County Sherriff's Police, despite the fact that the assistant state's attorney told them that they didn't have to bring him back, they thought it would be better if they did bring him back to get this all cleared up because the guy keeps writing letters demanding trial," Alvarez told reporters.
Once in Chicago, Robbins appeared Wednesday before a judge who made it clear on the record that he no longer had any pending case in Illinois and still had time to serve in Indiana, Alvarez said.
As far as his release, the Cook County Sheriff's Office suggested that also might have involved a clerical error. Spokesman Frank Bilecki said that when Robbins was taken back to Cook County Jail, there was no paperwork in his file indicating that he should be held, raising the possibility that it was misplaced.
But the Indiana Department of Corrections says it submitted paperwork telling Illinois officials that Robbins was supposed to be returned to Indiana.
"It's quite clear that all of the paperwork from IDOC was in order, so that they would have known that he was supposed to be returned to us," spokesman Douglas Garrison said.
Garrison read for WBEZ the actual documtation that tells not to release the prisoner. "It says 'Do not release this offender from court before contacting the Indiana State Prison release coordinator. There's no question that they know to bring him back," Garrison said.
Federal and local law enforcement officers searching for Robbins were knocking on doors in Illinois and Indiana on Friday, including those of his friends and relatives, Bilecki said.
Robbins, a Gary, Ind., native, was serving a sentence for murder and weapons convictions out of Marion County in Indiana. Reports of Robbins at the time in Northwest Indiana newspapers describe Robbins of being from Indianapolis. Authorities say he has family both in Northwest Indiana and Bloomington, Indiana, south of Indianapolis.
Witnesses to the 2002 killing told police that Robbins was arguing with his wife outside a birthday party in Indianapolis when a man intervened, telling Robbins he should not hit a woman, according to court documents. The witnesses said Robbins then retrieved a gun from a car and shot the man, Rutland Melton, in the chest before fleeing.
He started serving his sentence in October 2004 and his earliest projected release date was more than 16 years from now, on June 29, 2029.
It is not the first time a prisoner has been mistakenly freed from the Cook County Jail.
In 2009, Jonathan Cooper, who was serving a 30-year manslaughter sentence in Mississippi, was brought to Chicago to face charges that he failed to register as a sex offender.
Prosecutors dropped the charges because, as an inmate, he could not comply with the Sex Offender Registration Act.
A clerk reportedly failed to include the Mississippi sentence information in Cooper's file, and jail staff released him.
Cooper turned himself in several days later.
In a more recent embarrassment for law enforcement officials in Chicago, two convicted bank robbers escaped from a high-rise federal lockup in December by climbing down the side of the building on a rope made of bed sheets and jumping into a cab. Authorities recaptured both men, one of whom remained on the run for about two weeks. Officials have yet to provide a public explanation of the jailbreak.
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