Our View | Pitchess Escape Raises Questions on Security

By The Signal Editorial Board

When an inmate being held in lieu of more than a million dollars’ bail walked away from the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic sometime Sunday morning, no one noticed.

When it came time for the 7 a.m. bed check, David Luis Bustamonte wasn’t in his bunk. He had slithered out of the Los Angeles county jail’s South facility, presumably under cover of darkness.

He escaped the property, undetected. Almost as if no one was watching.

Custody deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department set about the process of verifying that he was indeed missing, and two and a half hours later, the alarms went off to alert the surrounding communities that an escape had occurred. 

Bustamonte’s newfound freedom would last less than a day: Thanks to deputies from the LASD’s Major Crimes Bureau and some intrepid scent-following canines, they tracked him to an underpass near the interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 126, near a homeless encampment.

He was wearing civilian clothes. It’s unclear where he got them. 

Bustamonte was convicted in July 2018 on theft-related charges, including burglary and theft of property. His next court date had been scheduled March 6 in Pomona. Surely, his escape has ensured that he will face additional court dates — and, one would presume, a higher level of security in his incarceration.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Not so fast.

Bustamonte’s escape raises a host of questions. Among them: How did he escape in the first place? 

That one is still unanswered. 

Back in the old days of the Pitchess Detention Center, it was known as the “Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho.” It was always a euphemism for “jail,” but it was the sort of place where low-level criminals would be held, and the security was openly acknowledged as “minimum,” and “walkaways” were rather common.

But times have changed. The community surrounding the jail has changed. Expectations have changed. And the nature of the Pitchess Detention Center has changed, as has the nature of the inmates being held there. 

It’s not supposed to be an “honor rancho” anymore.

Additional questions:

Why did it take two and a half  hours to confirm Bustamonte was actually missing before the alarms were sounded? Could that two and a half-hour delay have put any residents in jeopardy?

Why was information so hard to come by in the hours after the escape? There’s no public information deputy at the Pitchess Detention Center, which is equipped to house more than 8,000 inmates. 

Different media outlets were reporting different sets of information, and it wasn’t until a sergeant was dispatched from L.A. that there was any consistency in the information being provided to the media and the public. In fact, some social media and media reports were saying early in the day that the escapee had been caught, when in fact the search was still on. Such misinformation can be dangerous.

In the wake of the escape, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger asked the Sheriff’s Department to report on the details of how the escape happened, and that report is due back in 45 days. Hopefully it will shed more light on what happened, and how, and how the lines of communication can be more efficient, and how such escapes can be prevented in the future. 

“We want to make sure our Sheriff’s Department is fully equipped to ensure the public’s safety. This instance offers insight on opportunities for improvement,” Barger said, rather euphemistically. 

In general, the Pitchess Detention Center is a good neighbor for the citizens of Castaic and other nearby neighborhoods of the Santa Clarita Valley. But it would only take one incident of escapee violence to ruin that.

Thankfully, it didn’t happen. This time. The LASD needs to provide the community assurances there won’t be a next time. 

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