Three inmates who made a dramatic jailbreak by helicopter Saturday had obtained relaxed security benefits behind bars just a day before escaping, raising questions about an improbable prison caper that has made headlines around the world.
The disclosure that the men were free of handcuffs when they escaped has fed a furore over how three suspects, up on murder charges, could vanish from a prison courtyard within the space of a minute and remain at large.
As of Monday evening, the three – Yves Denis, Denis Lefebvre and Serge Pomerleau – were still on the run and the subject of an intense manhunt. The Sûreté du Québec considers them dangerous and put them at the top of Quebec's most wanted list.
Along with their escape are surprises about what preceded it. Quebec Public Security minister Lise Thériault said the suspects had asked an unnamed judge on Friday to loosen their imprisonment conditions, something that is within their legal rights.
"The judge accepted the prisoners' request," Ms. Thériault told reporters on Monday. "There will certainly be legitimate questions to ask ourselves about that."
At the time of their escape from the Orsainville Detention Centre on the outskirts of Quebec City, the three were in the prison yard without handcuffs or shackles.
Experts say the getaway helicopter could easily evade radar by heading into mountains near the prison. The helicopter was painted green.
"The forest is green. It's like camouflage," said Guy Dupont, the base manager of a helicopter flight school near the prison.
He said a helicopter is capable of landing on a small space, meaning that the one used in Saturday's escape could alight in a swampy area or at the side of the road.
"The mountains are right next door to the prison. It wouldn't take much to hide inside a valley," Mr. Dupont said.
It's unlikely the helicopter was registered or carried a transponder, meaning it would be difficult to trace.
Others speculate the trio could have already crossed the border into the U.S., or are laying low in a cabin in Quebec until the hunt for them eases off.
"If they're in a forested area, locating them is like finding a needle in a haystack," said retired Sûreté du Québec lieutenant François Doré. "They could be in a chalet waiting to be picked up, keeping a low profile."
The SQ remained tight-lipped about their search. A spokeswoman would not say if the helicopter had been found.
Authorities are urging the public to call 911 if they spot the fugitives, who are awaiting trial on drug-related as well as murder and gangsterism charges.
Saturday's getaway was the second prison escape via helicopter in Quebec in only 15 months, prompting questions about whether Quebec authorities dropped the ball on prison security after the last breakout.
Premier Philippe Couillard said catching the escapees is a priority in order to protect the public. But he said the case highlights the issue of security within prison walls and the monitoring of air traffic above provincial prisons.
Ms. Thériault, faced with a barrage of questions in the Quebec National Assembly, said a plan has been put into effect but refused to give any details.
"Prison directors have received orders to implement plans everywhere," Ms. Thériault said. "I'm not going to make the plans public. That would be like telling the crooks that I'm giving them the keys so they free themselves."
Placing nets or cables above the prison courtyards and rooftops has been raised as a way to prevent helicopters from landing.
With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City