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Published September 16 2013

Cornfield search spurs first lawsuit under Jeanna’s Act

BISMARCK – A prisoner transport company that allowed a sex offender to escape from one of its vans in October 2011 in Barnes County has agreed to pay $70,000 to reimburse authorities and local farmers who used combines to flush Joseph Matthew Megna from a cornfield and end a 22-hour manhunt.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon, who announced the settlement Monday, said Extradition Transport of America LLC also agreed to pay a $10,000 civil penalty, the maximum allowed for a violation of the Interstate Transportation of Dangerous Criminals Act of 2000.

Purdon said it was the first lawsuit filed under the law, also known as Jeanna’s Act in reference to 11-year-old Jeanna North, of Fargo, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1993 by Kyle Bell.

After being sentenced to life in prison, Bell escaped in October 1999 from a private prisoner transport bus at a Santa Rosa, N.M., truck stop and was apprehended three months later in Texas.

“This groundbreaking lawsuit should send a clear message to the prisoner transport industry: Follow the rules and keep the dangerous prisoners in your custody secure or face severe financial penalties under Jeanna’s Act,” Purdon said in announcing the settlement.

Megna was being transported from Florida to Washington to face a first-degree child molestation charge when he escaped from the ETA van on Oct. 4, 2011, at an Interstate 94 rest stop near Tower City. The van – which carried seven prisoners, six of them considered violent – had stopped to allow prisoners to use the restroom.

Megna later told authorities he used a bobby pin found on the floor of the van to pick the locks of his handcuffs, waist chain and leg irons, according to the news release from Purdon.

Employees of California-based ETA didn’t notice that Megna wasn’t properly restrained and left him and another prisoner unattended with the van door unlocked, the release stated.

Megna, then 29 years old, fled into a cornfield north of the interstate. About 60 law enforcement personnel from 14 state, federal and local agencies participated in the manhunt, using an airplane and helicopter equipped with thermal imaging technology.

The Barnes County Sheriff’s Office eventually rounded up a group of local farmers with combines to take down the corn, and Megna surrendered shortly after the harvest began.

Megna pleaded guilty to felony escape a few months later in Barnes County District Court, saying he fled the van because he hadn’t been fed properly and was “treated basically like an animal.”

Purdon said the farmers had been deputized as a posse under North Dakota law, and as such the U.S. attorney’s affice was working with the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office and state’s attorney’s office to see that the farmers were reimbursed.

Barnes County Chief Deputy Don Fiebiger previously told The Forum that the sheriff’s office was offered a settlement but was holding out until the farmers who helped got paid. The farmers submitted expenses of about $35,230, while the sheriff’s office claimed $4,756.

“We weren’t going to settle our lawsuit until these folks were taken care of,” Purdon said.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office previously reported that it was reimbursed for its expenses in the amount of $7,981.

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