Escaped Garfield Heights inmate robbed woman, broke into house before deadly crash

GARFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio-- An inmate who escaped from the Garfield Heights City Jail on Friday morning was later killed in a fiery crash while running from police in a stolen car, police say.

Investigators said 34-year-old Donnie Thomas was arrested early Friday for allegedly robbing a Walgreens store by claiming he had a gun and demanding cash from employees.

Garfield Heights police said Thomas escaped at 7:49 a.m. as he was being booked into the jail by a single jail employee.

"The jailer took him out of the holding cell, which is customary to book him into the system and get them changed out into jail clothes. It was at that time that he overpowered the jailer and was able to escape," said Police Chief Robert Byrne.

Thomas used keys he took from the jail employee to flee out of the facility's sally port.

Officers then began a door-to-door search for the suspect in the neighborhood near the jail. Residents were warned that Thomas, who apparently was not wearing shoes or socks when he escaped, was dangerous and desperate.

As police conducted their dragnet, they learned that Thomas, apparently armed with a brick, had attempted to force his way into a home. Frightened residents kept their children inside and locked their doors and windows.

"It's a good neighborhood, a lot of good people around here. And you never know, if you beat up a police officer, what's he going to do to everybody else. You know, he's going to run into somebody somewhere," said Patrick Eden, resident.

A man matching the description of Thomas broke into a house in neighboring Maple Heights. The suspect stole a car and later robbed a woman of her purse.

Investigators say officers spotted the stolen car with Thomas behind the wheel at a nearby Giant Eagle.

Police gave chase in a pursuit on Interstate 480 west that reached speeds of 100 miles an hour. Officer said they decided to call off the pursuit and a short time later, they discovered that Thomas lost control of the stolen car on state Route 176 North.

He was ejected from the vehicle in the fiery crash, and was later pronounced dead at MetroHealth Medical Center.

Investigators said they will never know why Thomas was willing to take the extreme measures that cost him his life.

"It's just been a whirlwind. I mean, from the very beginning to the very end, I've never seen anything like it. But you know the bottom line is that there were no innocent people, other than our jailer, that were injured, especially with the crash. It was only him and so that's what I'm thankful for," Byrne said.

The jail employee is now recovering from his injuries. Chief Byrne said an investigation will now be conducted to determine if changes in policies at the jail are needed.