FRAMINGHAM — The loud knocks came around 10:30 p.m. as families in an Irving Street apartment building were gathering for New Year’s Eve. Venessa Lugo didn’t answer — she wasn’t expecting company — but looked outside to see a man continuing down the road.
“I just ignored it at first,” she said in a telephone interview. Only when law enforcement officials surrounded the home did Lugo realize that fugitive James W. Morales had been at the door just hours after a dangerous escape from a federal detention center in Rhode Island.
“I was very shocked,” Lugo said, and her three children were frightened as well. “I started crying. I was very nervous.”
Lugo said she believes a neighbor in her apartment building was a friend of Morales and had written him letters. But Lugo does not think Morales knocked on any other doors in the building.
Authorities continued Tuesday to search for Morales in Framingham and around the region, reminding the public that he is dangerous and could be armed.
Officials would not discuss whether he had been in the town, but they said Framingham police were involved in the case, and State Police Colonel Richard D. McKeon acknowledged during a news conference that his agency had stepped up its presence in the town.
“That’s not to say he’s there or not, but we’re giving it everything we have,” McKeon said.
The 35-year-old Morales, a former Army reservist, escaped Saturday night from the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, a privately operated jail in Central Falls, R.I., crossing into Massachusetts before allegedly stealing a getaway car in Attleboro.
In a statement, prison warden Daniel Martin said the facility “is conducting a top to bottom investigation,” that includes “interviewing all officers on duty and all prisoners in the escaped detainee’s cellblock.’’
The facility is cooperating with an investigation being conducted by the US marshal’s office, Rhode Island State Police, and the Central Falls police, the statement said.
Morales had been incarcerated on charges that he broke into a Worcester armory and stole assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons in November 2015. He was wearing a GPS monitoring bracelet while awaiting trial on child rape charges in Middlesex County.
According to court records, Morales had also served probation on a 2013 Cambridge aggravated assault and battery case in which he acknowledged that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict him.
He had been accused of climbing into a window of the mother of his child, taking off his pants, climbing into bed with her, and then throwing her quilt out the window. He then punched the woman, who was eight months pregnant, three times in the face, according to a police report.
In Framingham, Lugo said she was troubled by Morales’s criminal history. She is chilled when she looks back at the encounter. The knocks seemed urgent, angry, she said, and she later found an exterior door of the apartment building broken — though she’s not certain how that happened.
After Morales appeared, authorities searched the apartment, and took away the neighbor he knew, Lugo said. She believes that was for security reasons. “It feels better knowing she is safe,” Lugo said.
Lugo said she did not notice injuries on Morales — authorities have said he may have cut himself during the escape — and said he did not appear to be wearing jail clothes.
He had a small bag, she said, and she later identified him for authorities based on a distinctive tattoo. Investigators have said he is black, bald, and has a tattoo of an eagle on the left side of his neck.
At the afternoon news conference, Jamie A. Hainsworth, US marshal for Rhode Island, said the search “is ongoing, and will continue around the clock in a number of jurisdictions.”
Until that happens, many in the Framingham neighborhood are also feeling anxious. Fabiano Da Silva was answering the door at his parents’ house down Irving Street.
His mother was frightened after another neighbor alerted her to the Morales sighting, so he came over. “I’m afraid, but just to make sure my parents will be fine, I’ll stay here all day,” he said.
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.