The stone walls, as gray as a winter's sky, are surrounded by a parallel set of chain-link fences, each topped by coils of razor wire. Missouri's maximum security prison at Potosi sends a clear message: Once inside, forget about ever getting out.
The $56 million state-of-the-art facility opened six years ago with the promise that Missouri's most dangerous criminals would never escape.
The experts were wrong.
On a foggy morning in November, Percy Cooksey, a rapist with a history of mental illness, wrapped his body with magazines and duct tape. He challenged the razor wire and became the first person to get away.
State Sen. William "Lacy" Clay, D-St. Louis, said poor security had contributed to Cooksey's escape. Clay is a member of the joint committee on correctional institutions.
Cooksey "virtually walked out," Clay said. "He had to be let out a door. Somebody had to open a door for him. There was lax security. How did a stack of magazines go undetected?"
Prison officials have offered few details about Cooksey's escape.
According to state legislators and police officers, Cooksey:
- Left his sleeping quarters and went out into the prison yard, undetected.
- Scaled the inner chain-link fence, passed through two sophisticated motion detectors, undetected, and eluded the gaze of a prison guard in a tower.
- Found a loose, ground-level section of the outer fence and crawled under it, undetected.
Once outside, Cooksey found in the prison parking lot a pickup with the key in the ignition. He drove to St. Louis. His disappearance wasn't discovered for hours.
***** Captured In Memphis
There's disagreement on the number of hours that elapsed.
Prison officials say Cooksey was accounted for in a breakfast head count at 6:30 a.m. and was discovered missing at a 10:45 a.m. head count.
St. Louis police who tracked Cooksey down believe he arrived in St. Louis about 5 a.m., meaning he would have escaped about 3:30 a.m.
One police investigator said prison personnel last saw Cooksey at 7 p.m. the night before his escape, when Cooksey went to the infirmary for medication.
Cooksey, 42, was captured 10 days later at a bus station in Memphis.
Cooksey, of St. Louis, was serving a sentence of life plus 65 years for rape and other charges. In February 1987 he invaded a service at the Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church, 4114 Natural Bridge Avenue. Cooksey pulled out a small sword and claimed he was Shaka Zulu, a legendary African warrior. He forced the minister to disrobe and abducted a woman and raped her in a …