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Two convicted killers registered as felons after escapes

Both used forged papers to walk out of prison

ORLANDO — Within days of strolling out of prison without a hitch, two convicted killers freed by bogus paperwork went to a jail about 300 miles away and registered as felons, records showed. They were even fingerprinted, photographed, and filled out paperwork to apparently keep up the ruse.

Authorities are now searching for Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, who were mistakenly freed from a Panhandle prison within the last month. Both men were serving life in prison but were let go when authorities said forged documents duped the Corrections Department and court system and reduced their sentences to 15 years.

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‘‘We’re looking at the system’s breakdown. I’m not standing here to point the finger at any one at this time,’’ Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men. He said he believed they were still in central Florida.

The release led prosecutors and prison officials to review their records to make sure no one else had been mistakenly freed. The corrections agency also changed its policy to require officials to verify all early releases with judges.

Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and registered at the Orange County jail in Orlando on Sept. 30. Walker was set free Oct. 8 and registered there three days later.

Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don’t have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.

By registering, Jenkins and Walker likely drew less attention to themselves.

‘‘If there’s no hit that comes back, they’re free to go,’’ said Isaiah Dennard, the Florida Sheriffs Association’s jail services coordinator.

If felons do not register, a warrant is put out for their arrest, Dennard said.

The sheriff said there had been some sightings of the men, and ‘‘most’’ of their families were cooperating, but he didn’t go into specifics in either area. Police were offering a $5,000 reward for help and billboards were going up in the area.

Authorities learned about the mistaken release when one of the murder victim’s family notified the state attorney’s office. Dennard said victims’ families are automatically notified when a felon is released, typically by a computer voice-generated phone call.

It’s not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release, or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor’s office and judge.

Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said Thursday there were several red flags that should have attracted attention, including that’s it uncommon for a request for a sentence reduction to come from prosecutors.

The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County clerk of court’s website and calling the office.

Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges — and not just court clerks — before releasing prisoners early.

Senator Greg Evers, who chairs the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, said he spoke to Perry on Friday and Perry will offer a proposal in which judges review all early-release documents before court clerks send them to prisons.

‘‘They’re working on some fail-safe plans,’’ said Evers.

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