Riot trial continues without escapees

FIVE defendants in the Strangeways prison riot trial were still on the run last night after escaping through the ceiling of a lavatory next to a cell where they were being held at court.

Their escape meant that only six of the original 12 defendants in the trial were in the dock as the case continued at Manchester Crown Court yesterday. One prisoner has still not been recaptured after a previous breakout.

A preliminary report into the escape on Wednesday night, which has seriously embarrassed the Prison Service, will be completed by today. But a local Labour MP said he had previously warned the authorities about security at the court.

The men removed a plasterboard ceiling above a lavatory next to the holding cell where they were being kept at the court. They then crawled through a ventilation duct which led to the dock of a deserted courtroom.

There they went through the judge's rooms at the back before going down a staircase and fleeing through a fire escape door. Police only realised that they had gone when they triggered off an alarm as they opened the fire door. By the time officers got to the exit the prisoners, in civilian clothes, had disappeared.

One of the five escapees was Alan Lord, 31, a convicted murderer who was one of the alleged ringleaders of the riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester in 1990. He is already serving a life sentence for stabbing a man to death 12 years ago.

Lord escaped once before while being held in Bolton police station two months after the riot, which caused millions of pounds worth of damage. He was recaptured a few days later.

Another of the five, Mark Azzopardi, 23, is on the run for the second time since the trial began in October. He and another man made off in a car after accomplices faked a road accident which allowed them to overpower their guards in a prison minibus.

The other three escapees are Barry Morton, 23, John Murray, 24, and Anthony Bush, 27. All the 12 defendants in the trial face charges related to the riot at Strangeways which lasted 25 days. The men used a technique which they perfected during the riot to escape. Then prisoners moved between different parts of the jail through roof spaces.

Derek Lewis, director general of the Prison Service, said a preliminary report into the escape by Tony Fitzpatrick, governor of Leeds prison, would be completed today. 'In the light of his report I will decide what further action needs to be taken,' he said.

However, Bob Litherland, Labour MP for Manchester Central, said yesterday that he had warned the authorities about design defects at the court's detention centre when a building worker told him of his concern about the cells.

The trial continued without the missing defendants yesterday. Judge Michael Sachs told the jury that their escape did not affect the evidence. The jury is expected to be sent out early next week to consider its verdicts.