Escaped prisoner from Garfield Heights killed in fiery car crash

GARFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio - A prisoner who escaped Friday morning from the Garfield Heights City Jail has died following a fiery crash in Cleveland.

The driver, 34-year-old Donnie J. Thomas, was taken to a nearby hospital and later died from his injuries.

Thomas was originally booked into jail Friday morning on robbery charges stemming from an incident at Walgreens that occurred around midnight, according to authorities.

Around 8 a.m., Thomas attacked and overpowered a guard and escaped the jail, police said. Thomas, who authorities considered violent and dangerous, fled barefoot into a nearby neighborhood wearing only a T-shirt and black pants.

Police set up a perimeter and conducted a door to door search of the area. 

According to authorities, Thomas started knocking on doors on Ramage Ave. in Maple Heights and asking residents to use a phone.  Eventually he broke into an unoccupied house on Dunham and grabbed a pair of shoes and clothing.

Thomas also found car keys and stole the car in the driveway. 

The home belongs to Robert Johnson, who said his alarm system alerted police. Johnson said he is thankful he and his family, including two little girls, weren't home at the time. 

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. Stuff like this only happens in movies," Johnson said. "Just unreal, unreal." 

Thomas was next spotted in Maple Heights where he is seen on surveillance video snatching a  woman's purse from the Quik Deli convenience store before driving to a Giant Eagle in Garfield Heights. Police found the woman's wallet at the store.  

Authorities soon located Thomas and he fled westbound onto I-480 at high rate of speed.  A chase ensued and Thomas reached speeds over over 100 MPH, police said. That's when Chief Byrne said they called off the pursuit.   

But Thomas continued and at some point, he drove over an embankment on I-480, hit a concrete barrier on State Route 176 northbound and was ejected from the car as it burst into flames.  

The jail guard was treated for his injuries and released.  No one else was injured in the day's events, police said.

"I've never seen anything like it, but the bottom line is there were no innocent people, other that our jailer, that were injured. Especially in the crash, so that's what I'm thankful for," said Chief Byrne.

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