The Swain County sheriff and jail administrators were warned that a jailer who freed a double murder suspect March 21 was getting too close to the prisoner but didn’t do anything to intervene, a former jail employee who was fired over the escape last week said.
The fired employee, Steven Osborne, told The Smoky Mountain News that he and other jail employees informed Sheriff Curtis Cochran and jail administrators Martha Marr and Jenny Hyatt numerous times that the jailer, Anita Vestal, and suspect, Jeffery Miles, were getting too close personally.
“They should have fired her when they had the chance,” said Osborne. “We saw it coming. We told them (sheriff and administrators) they were getting too friendly several times. It was a big topic.”
Miles and Vestal still had not been located at press time March 31.
The sheriff and the jail administrators failed to take action to end the relationship, said Osborne.
“They knew she was getting friendly with him,” Osborne said. “They had a meeting with her about two weeks ago. They didn’t do anything but slap her on the hand and let her go back to what she was doing.”
Cochran said there was no reason to suspect Vestal would do anything like this.
“She was a good detention officer,” Cochran said. “I never had any problem with her.”
The consequences of doing nothing could prove fatal, literally, said Osborne.
“Now there’s a killer loose on the street,” Osborne said. “Who knows when he’ll kill again or if he already has. This could have been prevented if they would have gotten rid of her.”
Osborne’s job at the jail was to watch over the security cameras to make sure inmates were not fighting or, in the worst case, escaping.
Osborne, who was a control officer for seven months, was on break when Miles used a key that Vestal apparently provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail. Osborne wasn’t watching the cameras when Miles unlocked a gate on the outside of the jail and hid in a van until Vestal drove him to freedom.
Osborne said he spent his 15-minute break talking to deputies outside the jail. Vestal took over for him while he was on break, he said. This is when the escape happened, Osborne said.
Vestal didn’t cover for him the entire break. She said she had to go to the pharmacy to pick up medication for inmates, Osborne said.
When she left, another jail employee, Jamie Sneed, took over, Osborne said.
Osborne had been back watching the cameras for about 10 minutes before he noticed Miles was gone. Osborne said he then called the sheriff, and the search, which included a helicopter and numerous roadblocks, began.
The reason Osborne was given for his firing was that he was no longer needed and that he was being let go because he left his post.
Osborne contends he did nothing wrong and had a piece of paper taped to the side of his computer stating he was allowed to take breaks as long as someone covers for him while he’s gone.
Miles is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their Bryson City home in August.
Sheriff Cochran had no comment on Osborne’s statements, saying he doesn’t discuss personnel issues publicly.
“The sheriff is just trying to take heat off himself,” Osborne said. “The sheriff doesn’t talk about any of this. It’s a dirty deal.”
The relationship between Vestal and Miles included her doing extra things for him like getting him magazines and spending time talking to him, Osborne said.
Vestal would stand in Miles’ cell and talk with him for two to three hours, said Osborne.
The relationship had been going on at least since the Daytona 500, Osborne said, remembering that they watched the February NASCAR race together.
Vestal would also write notes to Miles, said Osborne.
Family, friends worry about Vestal
Prior to working at the jail, Vestal was employed at the Cherokee Lodge in Cherokee as a front desk clerk. She was fired in October because her training for the job at the jail was taking up too much time.
She often brought her four children to work with her, and they would hang around in the lobby. Her husband, Brad Vestal, would also hang around the hotel while she was at work.
Many people who knew Anita Vestal said she loved her children dearly, and that is what is so shocking about her leaving them behind to run off with an accused murderer.
Her sister, Lea Ledford, said she doesn’t know what would motivate her sister to do what she did.
“It’s blown the whole family back,” Ledford said.
Vestal’s nephew, Ace Ledford, theorizes that maybe she was promised some money if she helped him escape.
“I’ve never known her to run off without her kids or her husband,” said Ace.
Ace, 20, said he is angry at his aunt for letting a suspected murderer out of jail.
What motivated Vestal to set Miles free?
Western Carolina University professor of criminology Dr. Fred Hawley said criminals are often charismatic and able to persuade people to do things they normally wouldn’t.
Inmates have lots of time to think and plot and find out where people’s vulnerabilities are, said Hawley.
The escape shows the consequences of jail employees fraternizing with inmates, said Hawley. This is a “worst-case” scenario of a jailer and an inmate bonding, Hawley said.
“This is pretty unusual,” he said.
Often it is less severe, with jail employees bringing inmates drugs or snacks, he said.
Vestal may have let him out of jail because she was blackmailed, Hawley said. Threats by outsiders could have been made against her family if she didn’t let him out, Hawley said. Another possibility is that Miles swept her off her feet, said Hawley.
Vestal may have let Miles out of jail because he made her feel attractive or special, said Psychologist Lynne Barrett of Waynesville. She must have thought that he wouldn’t harm her, said Barrett.
As for why Vestal would trust someone charged with murder, Dr. Barrett compared it to how people believe in cult leaders.
And it could have been that she was smitten with him because he flattered her and made her feel like he could give her things she didn’t have in life.
“When we’re in love we do things out of character,” Barrett said.
It could have been she was bored in her home life and starved for some excitement.
No one, from Sheriff Cochran to Vestal’s parents to the man on the street, has a clue as to why she set Miles free.
Steve Fuller of Bryson City doesn’t know if Vestal is a bad person or if she was blackmailed.
Kerrie Taylor of Cherokee has grim thoughts about what could happen.
“I don’t know if he’s already killed her and moved on to try and hijack someone’s vehicle,” she said.
Sheriff Cochran is also perplexed as to why Vestal freed Miles.
“Why a mother would leave four small children and run off with a guy like this is beyond me,” Sheriff Cochran said. “He’s had to promise her something. What that is is beyond me.”
The incident should serve as a lesson for law enforcement, said Shirley Hagler of Cherokee.
“I think if you go into law enforcement they should do a background check on you,” she said.
Cochran said all proper procedures were followed when Vestal was hired. She has no criminal background, he said. He added that the jail facility is very secure and not the reason for the escape.
“The jail worked the way it should. You can’t account for the human element,” Cochran said.
As for having any worries about Vestal hanging out with Miles in the common areas, Cochran said: “Those common areas are where the jailers go in and have contact with the inmates. There is no way to avoid that.”
Cochran said Vestal is facing charges for helping Miles escape.
“Her life has changed forever,” Cochran said. “She is going to be facing serious charges when she is caught. She has put everyone’s life in Swain County at risk plus everyone he’s come into contact with since he escaped.”
Cochran said he has been working around the clock on the case with help from the State Bureau of Investigation, Highway Patrol, Bryson City Police Department and the Park Service.
Three of the other inmates charged in the murders have been relocated to Raleigh Central Prison as a result of the escape while the other two remain in the Swain County Jail.
Detective Jason Gardner said the other two were allowed to stay in the county jail because they are not considered a high risk of escaping.
The sheriff thinks the escape was well planned.
Vestal was reportedly text messaging in her apartment complex parking lot the night before the escape. Cochran said the text messages are being sought.
The search for Vestal and Miles was featured on the national TV show America’s Most Wanted over the weekend, but hadn’t resulted in any new leads.
Detective Gardner said there is a possibility they could be in Atlanta where Miles’ wife lives, in California, where he is originally from, or in Alabama or Illinois.
Parents had good relationship with Vestal
Vestal’s parents, Ronnie and Judy Blythe, said they had a good relationship with Vestal.
“It was very good, very close,” Ronnie Blythe said.
Vestal had been married about 10 years to Brad Vestal, who twice declined comment to The Smoky Mountain News when contacted at his apartment in Bryson City.
The Blythes, who live in Whittier, said they have many unanswered questions about the incident. For instance, they don’t know why Vestal and Miles would leave the jail to go to her apartment and exchange the van for a truck. Why wouldn’t she just go ahead and get out of town, rather than waste time switching vehicles?
Her dad said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News that she had never been in trouble in her life. She enjoyed her job at the jail and was proud of herself for scoring so high on the physical and written tests to get the job, Judy Blythe said.
Ronnie Blythe said he is unconvinced that his daughter willingly let Miles out of jail.
“Whether he enticed or coerced her, I may be willing to accept that,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has done a great job handling the case, said Ronnie Blythe. But he is still amazed at how Miles and his daughter disappeared so quickly after the escape.
“If I could tell her anything right now, I would tell her to turn herself in and call home and let us know you’re all right,” Ronnie Blythe said.
The Blythes would also like their daughter to know that she is not in any trouble that can’t be taken care off and that she should return home and get on with her life.