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Published October 05, 2011, 11:30 PM

Fugitive who hid in field says he fled prisoner van because he was ‘starving’

TOWER CITY, N.D. – Tired, shirtless and dehydrated, Joseph Matthew Megna sat handcuffed in a police SUV, looking bewildered as the window rolled down and a horde of reporters and cameras closed in around him.

TOWER CITY, N.D. – Tired, shirtless and dehydrated, Joseph Matthew Megna sat handcuffed in a police SUV, looking bewildered as the window rolled down and a horde of reporters and cameras closed in around him.

“Am I famous for running into a cornfield?” he said.

The registered high-risk sex offender went on to explain why he fled from a private company’s prisoner transport van near here Tuesday, triggering a 22-hour manhunt that drew 57 law officers from seven agencies and farmers with nine combines to a cornfield five miles northwest of Tower City.

Megna, 29, said he’s a vegetarian and that one of the transport workers fed him only bread and cheese during his transfer from Florida to his home state of Washington.

“I was starving, and that’s why I escaped and fled out into the cornfield,” Megna said. “I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody.”

Authorities didn’t take any chances, keeping guns drawn on the cornfield and using a helicopter and airplane equipped with thermal imaging technology to search for Megna.

As combines rumbled across the cornfield Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to flush him out, Megna surrendered at 2:30 p.m. to a Valley City police officer who spotted him on west side of the field, Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClaflin said.

“The officer came in and I just, I was so dehydrated, I haven’t had water or food for days, so I just walked up to him and let him take me,” Megna told reporters.

The SUV hauled Megna to the county jail to be charged with escape from custody, McClaflin said.

Authorities had zeroed in on the cornfield Wednesday morning in the second large-scale search for a wanted suspect in a cornfield in eight days.

A Barnes County deputy encountered Megna about 8 a.m. while checking one of the outbuildings on the farmstead at 12855 31st St. SE, owned by Dennis and Adele Smith.

The deputy spotted a pair of shoes and found Megna hiding behind an anhydrous ammonia tank, McClaflin said.

When the deputy confronted him, Megna grabbed his shoes and bolted into the cornfield, reportedly saying that the deputy couldn’t shoot him because he was unarmed.

“He’s a seasoned prisoner evidently, because he knew exactly what to say, and he took off running,” McClaflin said. “And he was right – you can’t shoot him unless there’s … a risk to yourself.”

Authorities believe Megna spent the night in the building – which a deputy had cleared Tuesday night – where he had access to drinking water.

Dennis Smith, who rents the farmhouse to his parents, said he stopped by the house Tuesday night and locked the back door after hearing of Megna’s escape. He said he was glad he did, because his father keeps several rifles upstairs. He said he left the outbuilding unlocked.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Smith said. “Out in a rural area like this, you don’t expect things like this.”

Authorities said infrared technology wasn’t effective during the day because of unseasonably warm temperatures in the upper 80s, so they tapped the help of local farmers in an attempt to flush out Megna.

The harvest started shortly after noon, and by 1 p.m. neighbors from up to 20 miles away had arrived with six combines, tractors, grain carts and more than a dozen semitrailers that hauled the corn to the Smiths’ home base about a mile away. A SWAT team member rode along on each combine.

Dennis Smith estimated 80 to 100 acres of the 310-acre field was harvested before Megna surrendered.

The details of how Megna escaped are still being investigating, but Barnes County Chief Deputy Don Fiebiger said he spoke to a transport company representative and an inmate who was in the van with Megna at the time of his escape, giving this combined version of events:

The company was transporting seven inmates when the van stopped at a rest area along Interstate 94 near Tower City.

The two corrections officers in the van took five of the inmates, including one in a wheelchair, to the restroom and left one of the van’s side doors open for ventilation. Megna and another inmate remained inside the van’s cage, which was closed with an unlocked padlock hanging in the cage’s latch.

Megna – who was dressed in plain clothes and wasn’t wearing restraints – shook the door three times, forcing the padlock out of the latch, and fled, according to the other inmate, Fiebiger said.

Early Wednesday, the State Patrol identified the transport company as TransCor, which was the company that was hauling North Dakota murderer Kyle Bell in 1999 when he escaped from a transport bus in New Mexico while being taken to Oregon.

However, authorities corrected themselves later Wednesday, identifying the company hauling Megna as Extradition Transport of America LLC.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said he wasn’t sure how the mix-up occurred, but he apologized for it and said he and McClaflin would seek reimbursement from Extradition Transport for “every penny” of the cost of the manhunt.

“It was incompetence,” he said. “This was corrections 101. You account for and secure your inmates, and we wouldn’t have had to do all this if they would have done their job the right way.”

“Here we’re chasing around one of their fugitives and we haven’t even heard from them,” he added.

Megna was convicted in April 2009 on two counts of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. Washington’s Tri-City Herald newspaper reported that Megna admitted to hosting a party and giving alcohol to teens, inappropriately touching three of them and exposing himself outside an apartment.

The intensive manhunt for Megna followed an 11-hour search on Sept. 28 in a cornfield near Argusville for Dylan Thomas Pederson, 21, who allegedly threatened to kill himself and a woman. Pederson was captured and has been charged with four felonies.

McClaflin said Wednesday’s manhunt wouldn’t have ended as well if not for the cooperation of all the agencies involved, which included the Red River Valley SWAT team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Every search has its frustrations. This one of course had probably a few more,” he said. “But when they end like this, I can’t be sad.”

After his arrest, Megna told reporters he was feeling “not good.” He said he didn’t turn himself in because he was scared and didn’t want to return to the van. He said he thought the amount of resources dedicated to his capture was “crazy.”

“If I’d known it was going to end like this, I would have never escaped,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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