Yates County Jail break in 1985 to death row in 2011?

John Christensen
Robert Carley in 1985

Robert G. Carley is a name Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike remembers well from his case files. Carley is the only escapee in the history of the Yates County Public Safety Building. That was 26 years ago, when Spike was Chief Deputy under Sheriff Jan Schofield.

Today, Spike knows Carley for another escape from another facility, and the vicious murder he committed in the attempt.

In 1985, Carley was a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent from Penfield when he was arrested in Yates County for stealing a brand new Honda Civic during a burglary in Rochester. Picked up after wrecking it near the Viking Motel, that was just his latest crime in what could only be described as an already extensive criminal record for one so young. But he was just beginning his career as a hardened criminal.

Less than two weeks after that Aug. 25 arrest, Carley was in the Yates County jail’s recreation yard when his eye caught sight of a small area of deterioration in the high, razor wire-topped chain link fence where it met the pavement. Working quickly, he managed to unweave enough of the fence fabric to wriggle his small frame underneath. According to Spike, once he was past the first perimeter, Carley scaled the plain secondary fence “as if it wasn’t even there.”

The escapee didn’t make it far. He was found the next day riding a stolen bicycle near Gorham, and was run down on foot by deputies Reynolds and Simpson. Returned to the jail (but not the yard) until his trial in November 1985, Carley was convicted by Judge Fred Dugan of first-degree escape and criminal possession of stolen property, and sentenced to two to four years in Elmira State Prison.

That was the last Yates County was to hear of Robert G. Carley for 25 years, and in that same quarter-century, after a complete rebuilding of the recreation yard, that was the last and only escape from the county jail.

By 1999, the 31-year-old Carley had become a career criminal incarcerated in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. Perhaps remembering his success in his single-handed escape from our county jail, Carley joined a conspiracy of five to plan another outbreak. This one would involve much more than unraveling some wire fence and stealing a bike; this one would mean taking a man’s life.

Carley was serving a life sentence for the Oct. 15, 1987, murder of gas station attendant Robert Esposito during an armed robbery in St. Bernard Parish. On Dec. 28, 1999, Carley was the leader in an escape plot that led to the death of prison security Capt. David C. Knapps, 49, a 12-year veteran held hostage during the uprising. Using a makeshift knife and a claw hammer, Carley participated in the stabbing and beating death of Knapps inside the Education Building at Angola’s Camp D when the escape plan began to fall apart, said Tommy Block, lead prosecutor in the so-called Angola 5 murder trials. “The blood found on Robert Carley binds him to those final moments of Capt. David Knapps’ life,” Block said during opening statements in Carley’s first-degree murder trial.

The jury that convicted Carley of the first-degree murder of Capt. Knapps began deliberations Sunday night on whether to sentence the now 43-year-old to yet another life sentence or to death by lethal injection.

His role as one of “The Angola Five” brought Carley back to Spike’s memory when he was contacted by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office for the information on Carley’s first jailbreak for their arguments for the death penalty.

The Sheriff was also contacted by an anti-death penalty defense organization. “He was kind of an anti-social guy,” Spike recalls with understatement. The people and the courts of Louisiana have now had almost 12 years to consider whether he deserves the death penalty for this, the most heinous act in his life-long litany of ever-escalating crimes.

In this 2008 photo, Robert Carley and David Mathis get off the bus for a court hearing for the "Angola 5", the five guys accused of killing a guard in 1999. This photo was taken at the West Feliciana Parish Courthouse in St. Francisville.