Interior window a weak point

The Nova Scotia Justice Department says a prisoner who escaped from a moving sheriff's van yesterday did so by kicking out an interior plexiglass window that had been previously flagged as a potential weak point in security.

Justice Minister Ross Landry says the window was part of a cell intended to house the prisoner within the van and that his department is investigating how 48-year-old Thomas Arnold Jones managed to escape.

Jones was being transported to the courthouse in Dartmouth when he escaped around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Police say he damaged the vehicle during his escape and then fled on foot in the area of Mount Hope Road.

Justice officials say Jones had been travelling in a highly-secure area of the van with other offenders as sheriffs sat in the front seat and that he was wearing leg shackles.

Landry refused to comment on whether Jones was wearing handcuffs at the time but a reliable source tells CTV News the crew made a mistake and Jones was never cuffed, as protocol requires.

Investigators are looking into how he managed to kick out the back window without raising suspicion.

"That's something that we want to find out, how this happened," said Dan Harrison, a spokesman with the Nova Scotia Justice Department. "Nova Scotians expect that offenders like this are being transported in secure custody and that they arrive where they're supposed to be and we'll find out what happened."

Landry says the Justice Department had contracted out work to install bars on the window prior to Jones' escape and that staff brought the security flaw to his attention within the past year.

"It's not a matter, you say you want to put bars on the windows and it's done," said Landry. "There's a process to go through and there's cost estimates and evaluations and in the interim, in that process, this incident happened."

He also said new vans with a higher level of security were ordered four months ago but they aren't expected to be delivered until next month. Sheriff's will start using one of the new vans in April and the other will be used in the fall.

The great escape captured

A CTV News viewer happened to be travelling behind the sheriff's van Wednesday morning and snapped some pictures as Jones fled out the back of the vehicle and made his escape.

The photos submitted to CTV appear to show him slipping out the back door of the vehicle, ducking down to avoid detection while the van was stopped on the highway.

The man who took the photo says that as the vehicle he was travelling in approached the van, the prisoner was already clinging to the back. Then he said the man simply smiled and rolled off the back of the vehicle.

"The guy is sitting on the back of the van with his cowboy boots dragging on there was a big smile on his face, like he was having a grand old time," said Cotter MacDonald, who snapped the image with his cell phone as he sat in the passenger seat. "It was unbelievable."

Escape prompts massive search

Jones' escape prompted a massive search around the Dartmouth General Hospital as police tracked him with K9 units all morning and three schools in the area went on lockdown.

"When somebody escapes custody you have to weigh what their motive is and at this point, we felt he was danger to the public," said Const. Brian Palmeter of the search effort.

CTV Atlantic's Kayla Hounsell was also at the scene Wednesday morning.

"This is very much a developing situation, a very fluid situation. Police are literally chasing through back yards, running through back yards, hopping over fences trying to find this prisoner," she said around noon.

Hounsell also spoke with a woman who had a terrifying encounter with the escapee.

April Pelton was on her way to a Dollar Store in the area when the man approached her car as she was parking it.

"He came right up to the car," Pelton told CTV News Wednesday afternoon. "He grabbed a hold of the handle. I locked the door right away."

"It's pretty, pretty scary. I'm still shaking."

Jones was eventually caught in the area, roughly four hours after his escape. Police say he called them and arranged to be picked up.

"Essentially he called and told officers where he was, or arranged to meet them so he could turn himself in," confirmed Palmeter.

He was arrested at a home on Marilyn Drive around 1:30 p.m. and the woman who lives there told CTV News that Jones is her nephew.

"Two police officers went inside and a short time after they came out with a man in cuffs," said an eyewitness.

He was then transported to the Dartmouth provincial court without incident.

Prisoner faces new charges

Police say Jones was initially headed to court for sentencing on a break and enter charged before he escaped.

Now he is facing new charges of escaping lawful custody and property damage in connection with yesterday's events. Police say he is also facing a number of other charges, including assault, unlawful confinement, arson, uttering threats and breach of conditions from incidents that occurred in 2011.

Jones will appear in court to face the new charges at a later date.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Kayla Hounsell and The Canadian Press