Accused killer walks out of Fla. jail, and no one is taking the blame
Eric Vail, 28, was released from custody Thursday, even though he still faces a charge of first-degree murder and was ordered held without bond
By Larry Barszewski and Rafael Olmeda
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Broward officials are scrambling to determine who is to blame for a mix-up that led to the wrongful release of a man accused of firing his AR-15-style rifle at a Chevy pickup in Pembroke Park, Fla., killing its driver, last October.
Eric Vail, 28, was released from custody Thursday, even though he still faces a charge of first-degree murder and was ordered held without bond. Vail had originally been charged with second-degree murder, but when the charge was upgraded to first-degree, the second-degree charge was dismissed.
Officials and defense lawyers said that kind of clerical alteration should be routine. In Vail’s case, for some reason, the Sheriff’s Office only learned that the lesser charge had been dismissed; they said no one told them to hold Vail on the more serious charge.
Deputies and investigators are trying to track down Vail, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“It is the responsibility of the Broward County Clerk of Courts to distribute official documentation between all the essential parties about court proceedings, to include communications involving inmates in custody,” according to a statement from Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion. “On Thursday, the Broward Sheriff’s Office was notified that the second-degree murder charge on Eric Vail had been dismissed. At the time Vail was scheduled for release, the jail had not received any documentation from the Clerk of Courts stating the subject was to remain in custody to face another charge.”
The clerk’s office said it is investigating exactly what went wrong and declined to comment early Monday afternoon.
Prosecutors say their end of the procedure to make sure Vail remained in custody was followed. “After speaking again with the Sheriff’s Office this morning, we are confident that the State Attorney’s Office correctly followed all procedures and provided the relevant paperwork through the proper channels,” spokeswoman Paula McMahon said.
“Our main priority at this time is to locate and apprehend this dangerous criminal,” the Sheriff’s Office said Sunday in a prepared statement.
Vail, of Miami, had been in the jail since January, charged with the October shooting death of Wadarius Harris, 27, of Miami. Vail originally was arrested on a second-degree murder charge, but a grand jury indicted him and a suspected accomplice, Christopher Avery Campbell, 29, with first-degree murder in April.
Vail had two cases in Broward Circuit Court, one from his January arrest and the second based on the April grand jury indictment. That indictment specifically states Vail was to be held without bond, a routine ruling in first-degree murder cases unless defense lawyers successfully argue for bail at a later hearing.
On Thursday, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer closed the original case since it involved the same matter as the April charge. Despite the continuing second case, which Scherer is also overseeing, Vail was released from jail that same day, jail officials said.
“Something appears to have gone wrong here. Very wrong,” said Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Vail.
“All I can tell you is he’s not supposed to be out,” Finkelstein said. “We have not heard from the client. We have no idea (where he is).” Finkelstein said it would be his office’s responsibility, if they made contact with Vail, to tell him to surrender.
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The State Attorney’s Office said the Sheriff’s Office should have known about the upgraded charges.
“The defendant was taken to court by the Sheriff’s Office on the first-degree murder charge on Thursday, so it’s hard to know how the Sheriff’s Office didn’t know about the first-degree murder charge,” said McMahon. Vail was arraigned on the more serious charge April 9, she said.
Not only was Vail charged with first-degree murder, but prosecutors had been in court Thursday seeking to have Vail treated as a habitual violent felony offender based on his previous criminal record.
The current charge stems from the October shooting. According to investigators, Campbell and Vail were driving a Nissan Altima on Southwest 52nd Avenue in Pembroke Park when they pulled alongside Harris — who was driving a Chevy pickup — and opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle.
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Harris died instantly, but his pickup veered into the Altima, causing it to crash into a utility pole and flip over, investigators said. They concluded that Vail was the shooter and Campbell was the Nissan’s driver.
Police said that Campbell, of Miami, and Harris had been in a continuing feud that involved some drive-by shootings, one of which killed Campbell’s mother in Miami-Dade County.
©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)