Until October 6, corrections officers knew exactly where to find Christopher “Bubba” Padgett. If the convicted murderer so much stepped outside the range of his house-arrest ankle monitor, the machine would notify the Hamilton County, Tennessee Corrections Department.
But when Padgett, 22, cut his ankle monitor and went on the run, the Hamilton County Corrections Department was sleeping. Since 2011, the department has only tracked its ankle monitors during business hours, an investigation by the Chattanooga Times Free Press found. On weekends, holidays, and night hours, parolees had a figurative hall pass. And during one unsupervised evening shift, a murderer disappeared into the night, his absence unnoticed until the morning.
Christopher Padgett was supposed to land in prison on October 7, when a Chattanooga jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. Instead, the state has now slapped him on Tennessee’s 10 Most Wanted list. The night before his final court appearance, where he was found guilty in absentia, Padgett cut off his ankle monitor and went on the lam. He remains at large, convicted of the brutal murder of a cab driver.
The Hamilton County Corrections Department uses ankle monitors from SCRAM Systems, which alerts corrections officers if the strap on an ankle monitor is severed.
“An immediate alert is sent to whoever has been set up to get the alerts. They can choose whether to get a text or an email or both,” SCRAM spokesperson Kathleen Brown told The Daily Beast. She added that it’s possible for a person to cut a monitor from their ankle.
“It’s not easy-easy with scissors, but it needs to be removable,” she said. “If someone is in a car accident or the emergency room, they need to be able to get it off. We’re not making them out of titanium … it’s not super-easy, but you can get it off with scissors.”
In theory, police would be notified as soon as the monitor was cut. But the high-tech notification system only matters if someone is logged on and reading the alerts—and after 2011 budget cuts, Hamilton County stopped checking the monitors outside normal business hours.
“Any issues that take place outside of business hours are addressed the following [business] day,” Chris Jackson, director of Hamilton County Corrections Department told the Times Free Press.If not for a text message, the corrections office might not have learned of Padgett’s escape until employees logged into their work computers the next morning.
Jackson told the Times Free Press that he asked SCRAM Systems to send him notifications about any suspicious activity from Padgett, who was entering the final days of his murder trial. But when a 1:40 a.m. text message announced that Padgett’s monitor had been cut, Jackson was sleeping. He wouldn’t see the alert until 6 a.m., over four hours after Padgett is believed to have fled his home.
Jackson brought the severed ankle monitor to the final date of Padgett’s trial the next morning, where he testified that he had “no idea” where the fugitive was. Padgett’s aggravated defense attorney wheeled the missing man’s chair to the back of the courtroom. After two hours, the jury found Padgett guilty of the 2012 murder of Nathan Deere, a Chattanooga taxi driver who was found barely alive in the driver’s seat of his cab. Deere had been shot in the back of the head, robbed, and left to die. He passed away in a hospital the next morning.
Despite his absence from the courtroom, Padgett was sentenced to life in prison on murder and robbery charges. Prosecutors said if Padgett had bothered to show up, he might have had a better chance at winning his case.
“It was a case based largely on circumstantial evidence,” prosecutor Cameron Williams told Chattanooga’s News 12. “I think that they got to hear about him running, him cutting off the band, and I think that was another piece of circumstantial evidence.”
Padgett had only been on house arrest a week before his escape. Arrested for Deere’s murder in 2012, Padgett was freed on bail, then sent back to jail in 2015 after it was determined that he violated the terms of his parole. On September 30, 2016, just four days before his trial was set to start, Padgett’s mother bailed him out again. She testified that she sold two cars to make a $30,000 payment to four bond companies, which combined to pay Padgett’s $350,000 bond. After Padgett’s escape, the companies are on the hook for the six-figure sum.
And the Hamilton County Corrections Department is on the hook for the 23 people wearing Padgett’s brand of ankle monitors, as well as another 109 people wearing an older make of house arrest anklet.
Reached by phone Tuesday, neither the Corrections Department nor the mayor’s office would answer whether they plan to hire employees to watch ankle monitors during off-hours, or if parolees would be free to skip house arrest after corrections officers log off at 6 p.m.