By Jon Johnson
THATCHER – The inmate who walked off from a supervised work detail Wednesday and was found hiding in an irrigation pipe Thursday had a ride to Tucson only minutes away before being captured.
Juan Carlos Nunley, 33, of Tucson, was serving out a seven-year sentence at the time of his escape. It was his fourth time being incarcerated in prison.
According to Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) records, he was admitted to his most recent stint June 9, 2015, on charges of theft and attempted trafficking of stolen property. He was scheduled to be released May 13, 2020, with time off for good behavior. That release date will now be extended, however, as he has been charged in Safford Justice of the Peace District 1 with escape in the second degree.
This is Nunley’s second escape charge. After first going to prison on a charge of burglary in the second degree in 1999, he was sent back to prison in 2003 on charges of misconduct involving weapons and escape in the second degree. He then returned to prison in 2011 with a 3.5-year sentence for a second charge of misconduct involving weapons. He reportedly was involved in gang activity in Tucson and was twice caught as a prohibited possessor of firearms.
Nunley was transferred to ASPC-Safford at San Jose to the level-2 minimum security Graham Unit for his theft and trafficking charges and was given a work detail at the prison’s sewage pond. He was not located during the prison’s 11 a.m. count.
Gila Valley Central first published an article about the escape at about 7:30 p.m., Wednesday. More than eight hours had eclipsed since Nunley was missing yet the prison would not confirm his disappearance. Backed by multiple professional sources, Gila Valley Central published the article even without confirmation from ADC, which then sent out a press release confirming the escape two hours later.
Many in the public believed Nunley to have been long gone by that time, but the ADC had its K-9 Unit and Chase Team out in full force scouring the desert for Nunley. However, he was not found that night.
At about 5 a.m., Thursday, Thatcher resident Kate Kempton said there was a knock at her apartment door. Kempton’s boyfriend, Donovan Ramirez, let the stranger in due to the cold weather.
The stranger, later learned to be Nunley, said he was visiting from Tucson and was romantically involved with a woman when her boyfriend/husband came home days early. He claimed the woman threw clothes at him that wasn’t his and shoved him out the door to not get caught cheating. Kempton said Nunley was dressed in grungy sweatpants, a heavy work jacket, and work boots.
Kempton said Nunley offered the couple $3,000 to take him to Tucson, but she declined due to having to work at 11 a.m. and having a feeling that something was not quite right about his story.
Kempton then allowed Nunley to use her cell phone to call a friend to come from Tucson and get him.
After waiting for a few hours, Kempton said Nunley excused himself to supposedly try and get his clothes back from the woman he said he had been with. Apparently, Nunley’s associate was having trouble locating the apartments and still hadn’t arrived after 9 a.m. Kempton said Nunley returned and asked for a drink, and when Ramirez retrieved one for him but then saw Nunley heading out from the apartment complex on a bicycle toward High School Drive. Since Ramirez believed Nunley to have stolen the bicycle, he said he alerted authorities.
Kempton didn’t think much more of it and prepared to go to work. As she departed, she noticed the police presence at Thatcher High School and a search team near Denny’s. Apparently, some of Nunley’s discarded clothing had been found by the restaurant, prompting the search.
Upon arrival at her workplace, Kempton said a co-worker showed her a picture of Nunley and the Gila Valley Central article regarding his escape.
She recognized Nunley as the man who was in their apartment and raced home to check on Ramirez. The couple then went to a friend’s house to stay until they felt it was safe to come home. Ramirez also called authorities to report that the man he advised had stolen a bicycle was the escaped fugitive Nunley.
At around 4 p.m., the ADC Chase Team, K-9 Unit, and officers with Safford and Thatcher police departments, Graham County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, located Nunley hiding in an irrigation pipe near the intersection of First Avenue and Church Street.
He was taken into custody without further incident and charged with escape in the second degree. No word on if his associate ever made it to the apartments.
Brooke Curley contributed to this report