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February 27, 2006

a spidey-tale in the schenectady jail

Filed under: pre-06-2006,Schenectady Synecdoche — David Giacalone @ 12:29 pm

You may have heard on Friday that the famous Wall-Crawler will be dressed

in a new black costume, in the 2007 Sony film “Spider-Man 3,” instead of his

old, nerdy red and blue suit. Here in Schenectady, NY, we had a Spidey of

our own this week, but he was dressed in bright prisoner orange. [articles

and local comment collected here]


The Schenectady County jail is right next door to our main County Office Building

and courts, at the edge of our downtown district, and a little over a mile from my

home. Operated by the Schenectady [NY] County Sheriff’s Department (SCSD),

and Sheriff Harry Buffardi, the jail had its first escape since 1987. The story would

be rather entertaining, if it didn’t suggest quite a bit of ineptitude in an agency that

is important for public safety.


OrtizGaz Edwin Ortiz

photo: P.R.Barber/Gazette


The star of the show is 41-year-old Edwin Ortiz, who has been out of prison only

about half a year out of the last 20. When released in March 2005 from a Penn-

sylvania prison, he and his girlfriend (Rhonda L. Nickell-Spearman) went on an armed

robbery spree that ended last October in Schenectady, after a dangerous, high-speed

vehicular chase. At that time, he allegedly threatened to kill the arresting officer, saying

he would not be taken alive. His jailors soon learned that Ortiz had escaped from a

Pittsburgh juvenile detension center in 1982, using a knife to threaten his “house mother.”

After his arrest, Ortiz admitted to gun-point robberies in Herkimer County, Syracuse,

Philadelphia, New York City, Erie, Pa., and Bergen, N.J. (Newsday/AP, Feb. 22, 2006)

tiny check Sheriff Buffardi has had a distinguished career in SCSD,

rising from jail guard to Sheriff, and has written a well-regard-

ed History of the Office of Sheriff. Given Ortiz’s history, Buffardi

assured the public this week that “we had him on extraordinary




Tuesday night, however, it was Ortiz who acted extraordinarily. From news stories,

including interviews with Ortiz after his capture, here’s a quick summary of the

tale [see “Inmate Escapes from County Jail: authorities consider man dangerous,”

Schenectady [NY] Gazettte, by Kathleen Moore, Feb. 22, 2006, $ub. only, but, repro-

duced here; “Jailbreak details provided;” Gazettte, by Steven Cook, Feb. 23, 2006, re-

produced here, at Reply 8); “Ortiz talks; Buffardi stews,” Gazettte, by Steven Cook,

Feb. 24, 2006,r eproduced here, at Reply 12); “No plan doomed fugitive: Edwin Ortiz

details desperate attempt to flee . .,” by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, Albany [NY]

Times Union, Feb. 24, 2006; CapitalNews9, “Inmate who escaped now in police cus-

tody,” Feb. 23, 2006]:

jailFence The recreation area of the Schenectady County Jail , which is

located on the roof of the jail’s kitchen — surrounded on three sides by building

walls and on the fourth side by a fence; it is also enclosed on the top by fencing

that is 35′ above the ground.


About a month ago, Ortiz “noticed a flaw in a chain-link fence obscured from

the lone guard by a steel beam. An assiduous runner, Ortiz said he kicked the

fence as he jogged past everyday, jolting it free from a broken hook.” [TU] He

also began a vigorous exercise routine (running in place in his cell and deep-

knee bends, accourding to Buffardi) and a weight-loss program.

Ortiz later told the TU that he plotted to exploit a weakness in the

jail’s rooftop exercise yard, convincing himself that even plummeting to

his death in the attempt would be better than never seeing freedom again.


Sheriff Buffardi BuffardiH


According to CapitalNews9, Sheriff Buffardi “said he knew the fence

was loose in the rec yard but he never imagined an inmate could get

out.” However, Buffardi told the Gazette that “the rec fence was com-

promised and that went undiscovered.” The Sheriff assures County

residents that fences will now be checked regularly.

At 5:08 PM, on Feb. 21, 2006, Ortiz and a group of prisoners were escorted to the

jail’s recreation area. Ortiz recalled to the TU reporter:

As dusk approached Tuesday “I paced the yard for a couple of minutes to

hype myself up for the jump,” Ortiz said, knowing what was ahead. Then

he slipped his fit, 5-10 frame through the hole and scaled the cage unseen

by anyone except fellow inmates, authorities said.


OrtizTU Edwin Ortiz

by Lori Van Buren/Times Union


Standing on top, 35 feet above the pavement, Ortiz said he briefly contem-

plated the 10-to-12-foot gap that separated him from the roof of an old

dormitory. He stepped back a few feet and made a running leap, crashing

onto the adjacent roof and spraining his ankle. He then had to scramble

to different levels of that roof to reach its lowest point, where his grip slipped

and he fell 12′ straight to the ground, again hurting his ankle — an injury that

would hobble him during his tour of the “Electric City.”

Like the “real” comics-movie Spiderman, who often acts without a plan (or enough

spidey-web), Ortiz found himself “A fugitive in a strange city, injured and searching for

railroad tracks so he could hop the first train ‘anywhere out of Schenectady’.” Also,

like Spidey, he shrugged out of his work clothes and was running around in under-

wear (wearing a sweat shirt, long johns and boxer shorts). Oritz says he had no

inside or outside help, and merely found (in a bag on State Street, our main down-

town thoroughfare) the jeans, jacket and other clothes he was wearing when captured.

Sheriff Buffardi is quoted saying: “We did not anticipate that he could make

this miraculous spider-man-like jump from the top of the recreation area to

the top of another building 12 feet away.” (CapitalNews9, Feb. 22, 2006)


Buffardi told the Gazette: “I can understand his reluctance to divulge the

people who were helpful to him.”



Ortiz hobbled off, after his escape, believing that he probably had a 15-minute head

start. However, he didn’t realize that he was dealing with SCSD. Here’s what was

going on inside the jail:

6:12 p.m: the other inmates were escorted back to their cell blocks from

the rec yard and an officer recorded Ortiz to be back on the floor


– that same officer, who was required to make his count by visual

inspection of each inmate, recorded Ortiz (who was, after all, “on

extraordinary watch”) as present in the cell block 5 additional times

in the next hour


7:15 p.m: according to the officer’s log, he finally realized that he was

one man short.


“Forty-two, forty-fwee plus one missing,

that makes forty-four!” [Gazette, Feb. 26, 2006

orig. at 14]

7:38 p.m. : said officer gets around to notifying his supervisor of the


“tinyredcheck” Because Ortiz had supposedly come in from the rec yard, and

no one could conceive of an escape off that roof, almost three

hours were spent looking inside the jail for Ortiz. “We took apart

every wiring conduit. We had to get keys to locks we haven’t

opened in years,” Buffardi said. . . . “Then we found the breach

in the recreation yard fence,” and realized they had an escape.

(Gazette, Feb. 22, 2006, B1)

9 p.m.: neighboring police departments alerted;


10:15 p.m.: general alarm sounded of the escape



Although Schenectadians went to bed Tuesday night, and awoke Wednesday

morning, knowing that a dangerous felon was at large, the Schenectady Gazette

went to bed with an edition that told of the danger in a lengthy story, but did not

bother to run a picture of Edwin Ortiz. TV stations did run photos on their local

news shows on Tuesday night.


The residents of Schenectady County were lucky. Ortiz had escaped into a city

he did not know, where he had no personal contacts; he was also very cold and

confused. (When he found the apartment of a girlfriend of one of his prison-mates,

she slammed the door in his face and told him where he could find some Puerto

Ricans) Nineteen hours after his escape, Ortiz was captured, only ten blocks from

the jail, and without injuries to the arresting officers. He apparently committed no

crimes while loose. [You can see a video interview in which Ortiz says the brief

escape was worth it. WNYT13, Feb. 23, 2006]


Luckily, Ortiz had no guns or other weapons. He told the Times Union reporter:

“I wish I would have had a gun yesterday. Just to shoot it out … to get

lucky and not have to face it anymore. . . . Guys who are facing the rest

of their lives in jail, I don’t know what holds them back.”



The TU reporter got it right:

In addition to a cinematic jailbreak story, Ortiz’ 19-hour vanishing

act has left serious questions about security at the downtown jail.

Chief among them is how a veteran guard counted Ortiz as being

in his cell block six times in the hour after he’s now believed to

have escaped.

At this point, both an internal investigation and one by the state Commission of

Correction are continuing. Sheriff Buffardi says that any disciplinary action against

the [so far unnamed] guard, who repeatedly miscounted the inmates, and others,

would stem from those investigations.


update (March 3, 2006): See quick, count to six, to learn that deputies Gerald

Treacy and Jayme Paul were fired for their negligent counting, and more. Per the

Gazette (“Sheriff fires 2 after jail escape,” by Steve Cook, March 2, 2006, repro-

duced here, reply 15):

“There were supposed to be six inmates on Ortiz’s

tier, [Sheriff Harry] Buffardi emphasized.

‘I don’t think it’s a difficult or tremendous burden

for us to require a count to six people,‘ Buffardi said.”


jailbird neg



Prison fence:
the razor wire glints
with first light


George Swede Simply Haiku (Sept. 2003, I:3)

restored prairie . . .
where the grasses end
the prison’s outer fence

postal chess —
he moves me
from his cell

rook horiz

winter sun begins
to warm the steering wheel
prison visit day

another Christmas . . .
my parents visit
the son in prison

lee gurga from Fresh Scent (1998)



1 Comment

  1. […] Buffardi has been the sheriff for eight years now and the only stain on his impeccable career is a jail escape. But oh, what an escape that was! It was written about in several blogs [a spidey tale at the Schenectady jail] and hashed over in forums [] and used as deep dark campaign material. Not to mention that Buffardi was nuts [and by the way] to let this guy hold a press conference! […]

    Comment by Schenectady Rants » Blog Archive » The Great 2006 Sheriff’s Race in Schenectady County — November 6, 2006 @ 6:52 am

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