By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO (Reuters) - Florida authorities searched on Thursday for two convicted murderers released from prison based on forged court documents that indicated their life sentences had been reduced, state corrections officials said.
The forged signature of a high-profile judge who presides in the county where the men committed their crimes was used to dupe prison officials into freeing them, a court official confirmed.
Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, were released from the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carrabelle, Florida, on September 27 and October 8, respectively.
Both were serving life terms - Walker for second-degree murder in 1999 in Orange County, and Jenkins for first-degree murder in 1998 of a father of six in Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel said.
"There were court documents that said they could be released and so that is what the department used," said Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash.
But officials realized this week that the convicts should still be behind bars because "those documents were fraudulently modified," Cash said.
State Attorney Jeff Ashton in Orlando revealed late Thursday that a third inmate, Jeffrey Forbes, serving a life sentence for attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, attempted a similar scheme last spring and is being prosecuted for forgery and attempted escape.
Before his plan could succeed, Forbes was caught by chance by a case detective who happened to be searching prison databases for felons he helped convict, and spotted Forbes' bogus sentence reduction order.
Ashton said he ordered his prosecutors on Thursday to check on all felons they sent to prison but found no other cases of forged sentence reduction orders.
"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," Ashton wrote.
A court spokeswoman in Orange County, Florida, where Jenkins and Walker were convicted, said someone signed Judge Belvin Perry's name on two official-looking documents granting their release. The faked court orders granted motions to correct illegal sentences for each inmate and cited case law in support of the reduced prison terms.
"Both documents were forged," court spokeswoman Karen Levey said. "Judge Perry did not sign either release order. We don't know how it happened."
Perry gained national recognition when he presided over the 2011 trial of Casey Anthony, the young mother acquitted in the death of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.
A spokeswoman for the Orange County clerk's office said the paperwork passed through that department and was forwarded to the state corrections department.
The origin of the documents is unclear. The paperwork was not emailed to the clerk but may have been mailed or dropped off at the office, she said.
"We don't know where it came from. It passed through here on its way to corrections," clerk spokeswoman Leesa Bainbridge said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the circumstances surrounding the inmates' release, the Orange County Sheriff's Office said.
At least one of the suspects might have returned to Orange County, the sheriff's office said.
"Our main priority right now is public safety and making sure that these two guys are apprehended and put back where they're supposed to be," Cash said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone, Gunna Dickson and Richard Chang)