Tale of another Delaware County prisoner freed by mistake

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Kelly DeLuca, at her Havertown apartment, was mistakenly set free from the Delaware County prison. She was given two bus tokens and ended up in Upper Darby. (Akira Suwa/Staff)

Kelly DeLuca was talking on the cell-block pay phone after 8 p.m. at the Delaware County prison when she got unexpected news: She could go home.

"I'm not supposed to go home," DeLuca said she told the guard. It was May 6, and she had nine days of an 18-day sentence left to serve for violating probation on a criminal-trespass charge.

"Not my . . . problem," came the response, said the 43-year-old Havertown mother, who says she was told to hang up, pack up, and get ready to be discharged in time to catch the 9:40 p.m. SEPTA bus to Chester. She said she was not allowed to make any calls and was given two bus tokens.

An hour later, DeLuca, a well-educated woman whose life spiraled downward because of alcohol, found herself standing on a Chester street corner, dressed in sweatpants and blue fuzzy slippers, with no cash and one token left.

DeLuca is at least the fourth prisoner in recent months to be mistakenly released from the state's only privately run county prison - the George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

"It is obviously very embarrassing and completely unacceptable," County Councilman Andy Lewis said Monday. Until hearing from a reporter about the DeLuca case, he had been aware only of three others, including a murder suspect who turned himself in. Two are still at large, one convicted of firearms violations, the other charged with robbery.

"We have to make sure it does not happen again," Lewis said.

Community Education Centers Inc. of West Caldwell, N.J., which has operated the county prison since January 2009, has attributed the three previous mistaken releases, all since June, to paperwork errors.

"The company is working very closely with the county to review its policies and procedures," Christopher Greeder, a spokesman for CEC, said Monday. He said he was not aware of DeLuca's mistaken release.

County Executive Marianne Grace said Friday that the County Council would conduct an investigation and review all policies and procedures surrounding prison releases. The Thornbury Township facility has a budget of $44 million from the county and houses about 1,800 inmates.

The District Attorney's Office said Friday that its criminal investigation division also would investigate mistaken releases.

DeLuca's attorney, Robert C. Keller of Havertown, confirmed his client was mistakenly released early.

DeLuca, who was arrested three times on drunken-driving charges, said she was in jail last spring for criminal trespass after throwing a rock through her boss' window.

Keller said the confusion over her release may have happened when newer charges she was facing in a Haverford district court, for disorderly conduct, were reduced to summary offenses. The records showed there was nothing else to hold her in prison, he said.

In the meantime, her guilty plea to criminal trespass "should have kept her in," Keller said. "I was shocked she was released."

DeLuca sat in the Manoa Diner on Monday, sipping coffee and telling the story of her mistaken release, which ultimately escalated to an 81-day sentence with an additional six months of house arrest.

She said she had been sober for 111 days and had just completed a stint in rehab.

DeLuca, who grew up in Brookhaven, attended Sun Valley High School, where she said she was an "honor society geek" who was popular and enjoyed playing a variety of sports.

She graduated from Rutgers University at New Brunswick, majoring in environmental engineering. She now realizes her alcohol problem began in college.

DeLuca worked as a technical editor and later at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She received a master's degree in environmental engineering from Temple University and was making good money, she said. She married, divorced, and then, DeLuca said, "the bottom fell out" as alcohol abuse cost her a job at SEPTA, her career, and her second marriage.

Her troubles also landed her in jail.

That May night, DeLuca said she tried to tell the prison officials who ushered her out that she was not supposed to be released.

"That is not what the computer says," a corrections officer told her.

The only bus route from the prison ends in Chester.

"I have no money, I'm wearing slippers," said DeLuca. She didn't even have her house keys.

DeLuca used her second token to take a bus to the 69th Street terminal in Upper Darby. When she failed to persuade people to let her use their cell phones to call for help, she promised a taxi driver if he took her to a bar where a friend worked, someone would pay the fare, she said.

DeLuca said she called the emergency pager for the probation department. Her call was not returned.

"Before I screw up anything, let me turn myself back in," she said she told herself that night. "That didn't happen."

DeLuca relapsed at the bar. The next morning when she reached her attorney and probation officers, they told her to turn herself in.

DeLuca said she "freaked out," and instead committed herself to a crisis unit at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital for 72 hours, all the while continuing to drink vodka smuggled in by a friend, she said.

A "blackout" drinker, DeLuca admits that her memory of her timeout may not be perfect.

A few days later, a friend was taking her to Media to turn herself in. But fearing she would be penalized for being drunk, DeLuca left the car. Her friend called police; she was arrested and returned to Delaware County prison, where she faced additional charges and fines for giving police a false name.

Back in prison, and serving 81 days for violating her probation for a previous DUI charge, DeLuca said she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and signed up for every church and every class.

DeLuca said she had heard from other inmates and guards that her mistaken-release experience was not unique.

"This type of thing happens all the time," DeLuca said guards told her.

DeLuca said there is one silver lining to her experience. For the first time, she realizes that alcohol is not something she can handle on her own. She said she has embraced AA's 12 steps and is taking one day at a time.

 


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.