Swain County residents are locking their doors and loading their guns after a suspect in a double homicide escaped from the county jail Saturday, thanks to help from a jailer who may still be with him.
Lelon Greene of Bryson City has been taking precautions in case the murder suspect, Jeffery Miles, 27, pays him a visit.
“I’ve got two pistols on each side of the bed,” Greene said. “One on my wife’s side and one on mine.”
Angela Winchester has also taken up arms. “I’ve got one gun at the house,” she said. “I’ve made it more easy to get to.”
Winchester fears for the jailer, Anita Vestal, 32, of Bryson City.
“He’s already killed two people,” she said. “He has nothing to lose. Now he might kill her.”
Detective Jason Gardner said the relationship between the jailer and murder suspect is unknown.
Miles, who is from Atlanta, is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their home in August.
When news of the escape broke in town Saturday afternoon residents called each other to warn of the danger.
Winchester first became aware of the situation Saturday afternoon when she went through two roadblocks where law enforcement officers were looking for the suspects. She promptly called her brother’s wife who told her what was going on.
Now there is a debate going on around town as to whose fault the escape is.
The fact that the sheriff has no previous law enforcement experience when elected two years ago has fueled speculation that his office is to blame while others say he had no control. Winchester and her mom, Violet, disagree on where the blame falls.
Winchester believes the ultimate responsibility lies with Sheriff Curtis Cochran. But Violet said the sheriff can’t help it if a jailer decides to let an inmate out.
“Yeah but she was hired by the sheriff’s office,” Winchester retorted.
Detective Gardner said there was “no way” the escape could have been prevented.
Misty Postell of Swain County was in jail recently and said Vestal was the jailer overseeing her.
“She was a nice girl,” Postell said.
Mack Sutton of Bryson City said she thinks Vestal let him out of jail because “that old girl got sweet on him.”
It isn’t the sheriff’s fault the two escaped, Sutton said.
Odis Hyatt said this incident proves that the new jail facility is doing a poor job for what it is costing the taxpayer.
Since he learned of he escape, Hyatt has been keeping his gun loaded. He has trouble accepting that a jailer would help an inmate escape.
“She wasn’t doing her damn job,” Hyatt said, adding that the county needs to monitor more closely who it hires to work at the jail.
Detective Gardner said he is unaware of any criminal history of Vestal other than a possible worthless check charge.
But he said she is not a felon. She had been employed at the jail about eight months.
Gardener said Miles left out a side door, and Vestal left as she normally would. He said it is unclear whether she unlocked the door for Miles electronically though the control room or if he opened the door with a key she had supplied him.
They left the jail in a van and went to her apartment at Bryson Creek Apartments and replaced the vehicle with a red 2001 Ford Ranger with a maroon camper cover and a North Carolina license plate.
The sheriff’s office has spoken with Vestal’s parents who have had no contact with her, Gardner said Monday. Vestal is the niece of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vice Chief Larry Blythe.