Faïd's ‘mad’ French prison break: ‘Within 10 minutes, it was all over’, guard says
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Career criminal Rédoine Faïd enhanced his “Jailbreak King” reputation on Sunday with his second escape in five years, this time by helicopter from France's Réau prison. As the manhunt continues, a Réau guard spoke to France 24 about what went wrong.
With no fewer than 2,900 law-enforcement personnel mobilised in the search for Faïd, questions are being raised about whether breakdowns in security at the facility 50 kilometres southeast of Paris may have enabled the notorious French fugitive’s daring caper. How could a repeat offender – one who had already broken out of northern France’s Sequedin Prison in April 2013 with the aid of explosives – mastermind a new Hollywood-worthy escape?
A seasoned armed robber, Faïd has spent most of the past 20 years behind bars – save for two years spent, in part, touting his 2010 memoirs and his six weeks on the lam after breaking out of Sequedin. In April this year, the 46-year-old was handed his stiffest sentence yet: a 25-year term on appeal for the death of 26-year-old policewoman Aurélie Fouquet, who was fatally sprayed with gunfire during a 2010 botched robbery.
Moments before midday on Sunday, a helicopter flew over a Réau Prison watchtower before hovering in place just above a yard of the facility to which inmates generally have no access. After setting off smoke bombs, two men spilled from the aircraft, powered through a door with an angle grinder and advanced down a corridor to a prison visiting room where Faïd was meeting with his brother. Funnelled to the waiting helicopter, the gangster was spirited away into the clear blue sky in a matter of minutes.
‘Whistles and radios’
“It was a mad prison break. Within 10 minutes, it was all over,” Martial Delabroye, a prison guard and Force Ouvrière union representative at the Réau facility, told France 24. “All of my colleagues were surprised and taken aback. They saw the helicopter arrive from the watchtowers and gave the alert, but when they saw two individuals step out armed with Kalashnikovs, they could do nothing, equipped as they were with only whistles and radios,” says Delabroye, who arrived at the scene just after the event.
The armed commando would later abandon the helicopter, along with the pilot it had taken hostage, in the town of Gonesse, near Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport northeast of Paris. They would flee in a first getaway car later set alight on a mall parking lot and then in a second, a small white truck emblazoned with the logo of French public electrical utility Enedis. That truck was found on Monday, burned out 90km north of Paris.
Delabroye condemns the breakdowns in security that he believes facilitated Faïd’s escape.
“The helicopter could descend because anti-aircraft netting is missing in that area. It’s the only place where there isn’t any and it is exactly where the visiting rooms are, which is badly thought through!” Delabroye believes Faïd may have asked his visitors for information on the layout since that part of the courtyard is visible to prisoners’ visitors.
The guard also decries understaffing. “Being more numerous has a dissuasive effect on those who might dream up this sort of plan,” he says. At the Réau facility, which opened in 2011, there are 826 places for 673 inmates, supervised by 250 guards. “There are supposed to be 300 of us. This short-staffing has to end,” Delabroye says.
French prisons guards launched intense strike action in January in part over the security of correctional personnel and understaffing.
But Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet appeared to brush away the understaffing critique in the Réau incident on Sunday. “The situation isn’t linked to a question of personnel,” she said after the prison break, noting there had been five guards securing the visiting rooms on the day. She also held that the “very well prepared commando” had “most likely reconnoitred the area using drones”.
Prison authorities kept a close eye on Faïd at Réau, where he had been incarcerated since November 2017. The convict had left the prison in February to attend his appeal in the policewoman’s death, but returned to his Réau cell in April.
“He was in solitary, meaning he crossed paths with almost no one. All of his movements were escorted. It was only once he was in the visiting room that he could remain alone with the person he was speaking to while he guards stayed in the corridor,” Delabroye explains. The guard describes Faïd as extremely discreet. “We didn’t hear him. He didn’t draw attention to himself. He was the sort of inmate that, when you do hear talk about them, it’s too late.”
An email exchange published in the French daily Le Figaro in the wake of the jailbreak ignited controversy over the handling of Faïd’s case. The exchange purported to show a local prison authority pleading with the central corrections authority to accelerate Faïd’s transfer to another facility, warning that a potentially violent escape attempt could be imminent. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux on Tuesday said it would determine whether the emails were authentic and suggested sanctions could be taken if someone in the correctional chain of command had been derelict in their duty.
Easy mobile phones
Delabroye, meanwhile, says the fact that another prisoner was able to film part of the escape scene with his mobile phone hardly surprises the prison guard. “The inmates get phones brought in relatively easily. They practically all have one. And every time we conduct searches, we find them,” he says, resigned.
Justice Minister Belloubet launched an inspection mission that began on Monday at Réau, saying it would report back within the month to “say whether there was an active or a passive breakdown in terms of security”.
Faïd’s brother Brahim, who was visiting with him when the escape occurred and was immediately taken into custody, remains the only suspect held in this case so far. He was released Monday night and has reportedly denied having had prior knowledge of his fugitive brother’s plans.
Meanwhile, France’s most wanted man is still on the run.
This article has been translated from the original, in French, and updated.