Missing St. Tammany work-release inmate back in custody

Bill Stites, a St. Tammany Parish work-release inmate who had been missing since Tuesday, was arrested near a Slidell home Thursday morning by Sheriff’s Office deputies acting on an anonymous tip from someone who saw the escapee walking to a home off Old Spanish Trail.

Stites was working at Windmill Farms in Washington Parish with a handful of other work-release inmates.

When a Northshore Workforce Solutions van arrived Tuesday afternoon to take the inmates back to the program’s Covington facility, Stites wasn’t there, according to George Bonnett, a spokesman for St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain.

Deputies went to the address provided by the tipster Thursday and were surrounding the house when one of them saw Stites come out of an adjacent line of trees, walking toward the rear of the residence.

He was arrested at about 10 a.m. and returned to custody without incident, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Stites, 39, will be removed from the transitional work program and booked into the St. Tammany Parish Jail on one count of simple escape, defined as the failure of a work-release program participant to return from planned employment at the appointed time.

Stites is serving a six-year sentence for theft, possession of stolen things and access-device fraud.

The Covington work-release program, privately owned but run by businessmen with ties to Strain, has been under scrutiny in recent months. A series of reports in The New Orleans Advocate and on WWL-TV have detailed lax oversight of some of the program’s nearly 200 inmates.

The program, one of the largest in the state, had nine escapes in 2013, the most in the state. Two inmates who walked off job sites last fall were accused of committing crimes as they fled. Johnathan Leger, 40, allegedly tried to rob three people, stabbing one in the neck with a box cutter and leading police on a chase. Martin White, 31, allegedly stole a car from the parking lot of Chimes restaurant, where he was working.

Last week, another Northshore Workforce Solutions work-release inmate, Joshua Ponseti, was arrested at his job site and booked with aggravated burglary after he was accused of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house.

A raid of the program’s Covington facility Sunday by the state Department of Corrections resulted in 19 inmates being returned to jail, most of them for positive drug tests. Another 16 were written up for possessing contraband.