A large-scale manhunt was under way Sunday and Monday for a man serving three life sentences in connection with the murders of two people on a Yadkin County farm in 1980.
James Ladd, 51, was working on a tractor on a prison farm at Tillery Correctional Center in Halifax County on Sunday morning when he escaped, said Keith Acree, a spokesman of the North Carolina Department of Correction.
The abandoned tractor was found about 10 a.m.
The search continued overnight Sunday, as crews with bloodhounds scoured the area and a Highway Patrol helicopter crew looked from the sky. More than 60 members of the Prison Emergency Response Team and prison officers were activated, along with searchers from other state agencies.
Ladd is white, with graying hair. He had a beard, but authorities say he may have shaved it off since his escape. He is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs about 140 pounds. He was wearing a pair of green pants and a white T-shirt when he escaped.
Ladd was convicted in 1981 and would have been sent to death row save for one vote. The jury was deadlocked 11-1 to impose the death penalty after more than seven hours of deliberations, when the jury forewoman told the judge that the holdout juror said she didn't believe in capital punishment and "I'm not changing my mind under any circumstances."
Ladd was 19 and from the Union Grove area of Iredell County at the time he was convicted.
The killings happened at the Henderson family farm off Shiloh Church Road in Yadkin County. Both men were shot in the back of the neck with a high-powered rifle.
A man testified during the trial that the night before the killings, Ladd had talked about wanting to kill and rob Johnny Parks Henderson, a cattle dealer.
Ladd was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting and killing Henderson, 25, of Hamptonville. He was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting and killing David Gwynn Edwards, 22, of Ennice.
Henderson was robbed of about $12,000, leading to Ladd's armed robbery charge and conviction, and the third life sentence.
Henderson was the brother of Jack Henderson, who was sheriff of Yadkin County at the time of the killings.
The trial was moved to the Surry County seat of Dobson.
A psychiatrist testified that Ladd lived in a fantasy world and was mentally ill. He said that Ladd, who weighed about 120 pounds at the time of the killings, exhibited a "Popeye syndrome" in which a small person sees himself and what he can do in a larger-than-life image.
Prison officials said Ladd had a relatively good prison disciplinary record, with no violent infractions. He had worked his way through the system for the privilege of being at Tillery, a minimum-security prison, and a job at the 7,000-acre farm.
If Ladd had been convicted under the current structured sentencing law, he would have been sentenced either to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But the law was different when Ladd was sentenced.
He became eligible for parole after serving 30 years. He was denied parole in January 2011, and at the time of his escape had been scheduled for his next parole review in 2014, prison officials said.
Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the DOC, said all inmates other than those sentenced to death or life without parole have the opportunity to work their way into minimum custody and prepare for their eventual release. Currently 382 inmates with life sentences are housed in minimum security.
Many of those inmates are assigned to Tillery, where inmates work in prison farming operations in preparation for re-entering society.
"Inmate farm workers are supervised, but not continuously monitored," Walker said Monday. "Depending on their job assignment, some inmates have direct supervision and some have graduated to a level where they are checked on periodically."
Records show Ladd is the seventh North Carolina inmate to escape in 2012. All the others have been recaptured. The last two inmates who escaped Tillery, in December 2007, were apprehended two days later in South Carolina.
The last convicted murderer to escape, 47-year-old Martin Pedron, also absconded from Tillery. Pedron is still at large.
The prison is located in a rural area more than an hour's drive east of Raleigh.