Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Escapee plotted to flee to Cuba

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 — Time: 6:40:55 AM EST

Escapee plotted to flee to Cuba

By Phil Ray,

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The escape of state prison inmate Christopher Patrick
Gerlach from an Altoona hospital last year was not on impulse but part
of an elaborate plan to avoid serving a life sentence by fleeing to
Cuba, an assistant in the district attorney's office said Tuesday.

Gerlach, 30, who is serving a life sentence at the State Correctional
Institution at Houtzdale for the July 1995 second-degree murder of his
friend in Montgomery County, was brought to a Blair County courtroom
Tuesday for a pretrial hearing.

Assistant District Attorney Terry Tomassetti and Gerlach's attorney,
Assistant Public Defender Lucas Kelleher, reached a plea agreement
Tuesday in which Gerlach was sentenced to five to 10 years for escape
and other offenses. The sentence is in addition to his life term.

Gerlach pleaded guilty to robbery of a motor vehicle, escape and two
counts each of burglary and unlawful restraint.

Judge Daniel J. Milliron said he never would have agreed to such a light
sentence if Gerlach had not already been serving life.

Gerlach asked Milliron to exclude statements he gave to police after his
capture following an intense manhunt in the Altoona area Nov. 16.

Tomassetti said Gerlach gave a statement to police saying that ever
since he was sentenced to life in prison, he was plotting his escape.

His plan was to take whatever opportunity presented itself.

That opportunity came at the hospital Nov. 16 when prison officers
allowed Gerlach to go into a restroom to change into a hospital gown for
a medical examination.

What they didn't realize was that another door led to a hospital corridor.

Gerlach made his way to Lexington Avenue and Eighth Street, where he
broke into an apartment and stole a change of clothes.

Gerlach hitched a ride with another man to North Seventh Street at
Vicars Lane, where he confronted a woman in her home. He tied her up and
took her car.

He next set out on a search for an upscale neighborhood.

Tomassetti said Gerlach had memorized the telephone of an airline,
Skybridge Air Service, which was advertised in The Wall Street Journal.

The air service, Gerlach told police, could be chartered to fly a person
anywhere — for a price.

When Gerlach reached the Antis Township home of an apparent well-to-do
local businessman, he confronted a cleaning lady and tied her up.

He then called the air service and arranged for a $32,000 flight to Jamaica.

The air service said it would send a limo to pick him up.

With the cleaning lady tied up, Gerlach stole the businessman's clothes
and began his search for a credit card to pay the $32,000.

He also searched for a handgun because his plan was to use the gun to
divert his private flight to Cuba.

Cuba does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, which
meant Gerlach would be able to avoid life behind bars.

The only gun he could find was a metal, toy cap gun that looked like a
.38-caliber revolver.

The cleaning lady was able to call 911 while Gerlach was searching the
home. He was forced to flee to a nearby home when state police responded
to her call.

When Gerlach was found in the basement of the nearby home in Tyrone RR,
he used the cap gun to threaten suicide, at which point police forcibly
took him into custody.

Through his attorney, Gerlach said he wanted to plead guilty so the two
women he held hostage would not have to relive their experiences and to
avoid further embarrassment to the state Department of Corrections.

Tomassetti said the prosecution was able to get guilty pleas on the most
serious charges against Gerlach.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.

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