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Thursday, November 10, 2022

A daring escape, a gunshot death: the tragic tale of an Alabama jailbreak | US news

Maybe it was because she had endured the loss of two longtime partners over the last several years. Or perhaps she feared – if she didn’t go through with it – her loved ones would be killed.

Whatever the case, James Ballentine hopes there’s a good explanation for why his neighbor of nearly 40 years, Vicky White, ignited a romantic affair with an inmate of the rural Alabama jail where she was the assistant director, and helped him escape, before she shot herself to death as police closed in 11 days later and about 300 miles away. It was a story that captured national and global attention.

“That’s just not Vicky to do something like that, because of the way she was,” said Ballentine, who grew up across the street from the home White shared with her parents in Lexington, Alabama. “She wasn’t raised that way.”

Yet, as police continue investigating how White became entangled in what they called one of the best-planned jailbreaks they had seen, authorities say the evidence is clear. Vicky White wasn’t coerced into the plot – she willingly participated.

“You think you know someone,” said the Lauderdale county sheriff, Rick Singleton, whose office runs the jail that employed White. “And it turns out you really don’t know them at all.”

The confusion is easy to understand when White, 56, is viewed from the perspective of those in her home town.

Ballentine saw a devoted daughter, who spent most of her life residing either in her parents’ house or in a home directly behind it. She would help her father pour concrete, which is how he made his living. She would get her parents groceries, clean their house, drive them to the doctor, and take care of repairs around the place.

Ballentine, 58, said he trusted her so much that she babysat his son, now 26, alone on several occasions, beginning when he was about six. He ran out of gasoline one time and out of all the people in the world, he called her for help. She promptly showed up and brought him to a gas station, where he filled up a can before she drove him back to the empty vehicle.

“You could rely on her for anything,” Ballentine said. “Anything.”

Another neighbor, Jody King, said White would delight his children with her patrol cruiser, waving as she made its lights flash and sirens blare on her way in to work at the Lauderdale correctional center.

Vicky White, right, died of a gunshot wound after fleeing with Casey White, right.
Vicky White, right, died of a gunshot wound after fleeing with Casey White, right. Photograph: AP

“She was just extremely nice,” King said.

Maybe the only other place where White enjoyed such a spotless reputation was at the lockup where she worked for 16 years.

White earned supervisor of the year honors at the facility four times, and she was in line for a fifth such award later this month. That illustrated how highly both White’s colleagues and even the inmates they oversaw regarded her, according to Singleton.

“She was the kind of employee everyone wanted – if something needed to be done, she was the go-to person,” said Singleton, who has been in office seven years. “If there was something you needed, she made sure she got it for you.”

But White’s wasn’t a pain-free life. In December 2009, a car crash killed her years-long romantic companion, 49-year-old Bryan Garner. Then, this past January, complications from Parkinson’s disease killed her ex-husband Tommy White, 62, with whom she stayed on good terms.

Did the heartbreak from both deaths leave her vulnerable to striking up an ill-advised romance? Authorities know they may never get the answer. But many of White’s acquaintances can’t help but wonder now, especially given what happened after she met Casey Cole White (no relation).

By the time Vicky White’s path crossed with that of Casey White, he was already serving a 75-year sentence at a prison in Jefferson county, Alabama, after being convicted of breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s home in 2015, shooting at her and two of her friends, and killing her dog.

He had also shot at police after fleeing in a stolen car and trying to carjack another vehicle, firing at both drivers in the process.

Then, in 2020, he allegedly sent a letter to the Lauderdale county sheriff’s office confessing that he had broken into the apartment of Connie Ridgeway and stabbed the 58-year-old mother of two to death in 2015, before his imprisonment.

The missive prompted Alabama officials to transfer Casey White to the lockup that Vicky White helped run. Authorities have kept mostly mum about precise details, but Singleton has said that sometime after that, Vicky White began showing Casey White preferential treatment, such as by giving him extra food.

Casey White, now 38, initially pleaded guilty to the Ridgeway slaying, but then he changed his plea to not guilty, arguing that he was legally insane and therefore not culpable at the time of the killing.

Amid the procedural rigamarole, Casey White was transferred out of the Lauderdale county lockup, but then he returned in February of this year, in advance of preliminary hearings centering on his trial in the Ridgeway murder, which was scheduled to get under way in June.

Singleton said Vicky White – in the interim – stayed in touch with Casey White, who could possibly be executed if convicted of murdering Ridgeway. The sheriff wouldn’t elaborate, but he said investigators have since secured recordings of telephone calls that Vicky White made to Casey White when he was temporarily transferred out, and they establish that the two had linked up romantically.

The scene in Evansville, Indiana, where Vicky White shot herself after the Cadillac in which she was escaping after being rammed by pursuers.
The scene in Evansville, Indiana, where Vicky White shot herself after the Cadillac in which she was escaping after being rammed by pursuers. Photograph: Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Off/Zuma Press Wire Service/Rex/Shutterstock

As the end of April neared, Vicky White suddenly started talking about moving to the beach and quitting the job from which she never took sick days or vacation time. She briefly moved in with her parents nextdoor after selling her home on 18 April for $95,550 – far below the $235,600 that the Lauderdale county government estimated her property was worth. And she initiated the process to retire from the sheriff’s office, scheduling her last ever shift for 29 April.

One of Vicky White’s last moves on the job was to send a total of 12 inmates and five deputies under her command to court in two transport vans. It left her as the last employee at the correctional center who was authorized to transport inmates, Singleton said.

Vicky White took advantage of her suddenly solitary position, put Casey White in her patrol cruiser, and told her remaining colleagues that she was taking the imposing 6ft 9in detainee to a mental health evaluation at court.

Only officials later realized there was no such evaluation scheduled, and neither Vicky nor Casey White ever made it to court. And if anyone knew that traveling alone with an inmate was against jail policy, it was Vicky White, Singleton said.

The sheriff experienced a wide range of emotions as the hours passed and there was no sign of the Whites. At first he feared Casey White had somehow overpowered his trusted jail aide and forced her to help him escape.

But, relatively quickly, it became clear those fears were unfounded. Authorities spotted Vicky White’s patrol cruiser abandoned at a nearby shopping center. Surveillance then showed them getting into and driving off in a 2007 Ford Edge sport-utility vehicle that Vicky White had just bought under an assumed identity, apparently with the money she made from offloading her home. Casey White even had a change of clothes on hand.

As word spread of the inmate and jail guard who apparently ran off together, other detainees at the lockup came forward and told investigators that the Whites had been engaging in a romantic relationship. Investigators in part used the recordings of the calls that Vicky White made to Casey White to confirm that information as true, Singleton said.

Within hours of their disappearance, Singleton’s deputies had obtained a warrant to arrest both Vicky White and Casey White, launching a huge manhunt that drew assistance from the US Marshals Service, the nation’s elite fugitive catchers.

Vicky White’s mother, Patricia “Pat” Davis, went on a local television station and pleaded with her daughter to come home, describing her shock to viewers. She had never heard of Casey White, and her last conversation with her daughter was a mundane one about her dog, the mother recounted.

“I thought at first it was a mistake,” Pat Davis told WAAY-TV. “And then when I found out for sure it was [not], it was just disbelief.”

Despite her mother’s supplications, Vicky White didn’t come home. She and Casey White ditched the Edge in a community in Tennessee about two hours north of Lauderdale county and left in a Ford F-150 pickup that her money also apparently bought. By 4 May, they ditched the truck at a car wash in Evansville, Indiana, about 270 miles from Lauderdale.

Weapons and ammunition found in the Cadillac carrying Vicky White and Casey White.
Weapons and ammunition found in the Cadillac carrying Vicky White and Casey White. Photograph: Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

Investigators used car wash surveillance video to determine that they had gotten into a Cadillac, a third getaway vehicle which Vicky White’s money had seemingly purchased.

At this point, the US marshal in charge of the manhunt, Marty Keely, said it became obvious the Whites’ escape plot was unusually well planned.

“Typically with escapes, they have a plan to get over the fence, but once they’re on the outside, they’re not very organized,” Keely said. Crediting it to Vicky White’s intimate knowledge of jail operations, Keely said: “This was much more organized than you typically see.”

Officers canvassed Evansville for signs of the Cadillac, finally seeing it at a local motel. They staked out the motel and spotted Casey and Vicky White emerging from the room where they were apparently trying to lie low.

The pair got into the Cadillac and took off when police tried to stop them.

A 15-minute car chase ensued. It ended with an officer ramming the Cadillac into a ditch, where it turned on to its side.

The crash activated equipment in the car that automatically alerted 911 to the wreck. Emergency dispatchers listened in on – and recorded – a panicked Vicky White speaking to Casey White.

“Oh my God … Casey,” Vicky White says on the recording. “Airbags are going off. Let’s get out and run. Get us back to the fucking hotel! … Casey.”

Soon after, Vicky White aimed a gun at her head and shot herself.

The recording picked up the voices of officers approaching the wrecked car after Vicky White had turned her gun on herself.

“She’s got a gun in her hand, and she’s breathing,” one of the voices said. “Her finger is on the trigger.”

There were handguns, a rifle, ammunition magazines and $29,000 in cash, but Casey White didn’t try to run any more. He surrendered, asking officers to help his “wife”, who had shot herself in the head.

There’s no evidence that the Whites ever married, but officials said the remark starkly illustrated how close the two had become.

Officers arrested Casey White and brought Vicky White to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Officials said an autopsy examination performed on Tuesday confirmed she died by her own hand, despite speculation from some that Casey White had possibly killed her and then tried to lie.

Casey White has since been returned to Alabama for the Ridgeway murder trial and to face charges in connection with his near two-week escape.

Meanwhile, Vicky White’s family held her funeral Saturday in Lauderdale county. About 200 mourners – colleagues, friends and loved ones – gathered at a local cemetery to pay their final respects.

Vicky White’s mother and father, JC Davis, went back to their home after the burial. The dad stood in his garden and briefly spoke with the Guardian, saying the size of the turnout for the funeral was a small comfort, showing how much their community respected his daughter.

He declined to say much more as his wife waved him back into the home. “We’ll let it go with how it’s been going,” he added, clad in an undershirt and jeans. “I couldn’t believe what happened at all. I’ll tell you that.”

Minutes later, lifelong Lexington resident Amy Crunk dropped by Vicky White’s gravesite, adorned with an array of fresh flowers. Crunk said she stopped by because her late brother was best friends with Vicky’s brother, and JC had poured concrete jobs for her and much of the rest of her family.

“If somebody dropped a bomb (here), I don’t think it would be as big a shock as this,” Crunk said. “Because they’re such a good family, everyone wants to find a reason. We’re trying to figure out why she did what she did. She made a mistake. Yes, she did wrong. But everyone is sad for her family and what they’re going through.”

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