Officials call in combines to flush escaped sex offender from cornfield near Tower City, N.D.

TOWER CITY, N.D. - Authorities are tapping the help of local farmers in an attempt to end a large-scale manhunt that began 20 hours ago after a convicted high-risk sex offender from Washington state fled a transport van near here Tuesday.

Joseph Megna
Joseph Megna

TOWER CITY, N.D. - Authorities are tapping the help of local farmers in an attempt to end a large-scale manhunt that began 20 hours ago after a convicted high-risk sex offender from Washington state fled a transport van near here Tuesday.

Cass County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jim Thoreson said two farmers started combining a 310-acre cornfield shortly after noon, where 29-year-old Joseph Megna is believed to be hiding out.

Another four farmers with combines are expected on the scene within the hour, Thoreson said. In total, six combines and 16 grain semis are are expected to show up, working until late afternoon or early evening, to help both harvest and flush out the suspect. Some of the trucks are expected to arrive from as far as 20 miles away.

A SWAT team member is riding along with each farmer, and authorities are maintaining a perimeter around the cornfield, Thoreson said.

"We're just going to start doing piece by piece and hopefully flush him out that way," Capt. Rick Majerus said.


A Border Patrol helicopter has also resumed air surveillance after refueling in Jamestown.

Authorities zeroed in on the farm field about five miles northwest of Tower City earlier this morning in the second large-scale search for a wanted suspect in eight days.

A Barnes County deputy encountered Megna around 8 this morning while checking one of the outbuildings on Dennis Smith's farmstead, at 12855 31st St. S.E.

"That's the pleasure of a small town," Adele Smith said about neighbors turning out to help.

According to Majerus and Smith:

The deputy noticed Megna hiding behind an anhydrous ammonia trailer after spotting his shoes on the ground.

When the deputy confronted him, Megna grabbed his shoes and took off running, reportedly saying that the deputy couldn't shoot him because he wasn't armed.

Authorities believe Megna spent at least part of the night in the barn, where he also had access to drinking water from a faucet in the building.


Smith told The Forum he rents the farmhouse to his parents, who are currently out of town.

Upon hearing of Megna's escape, Smith stopped by the farmhouse last night because the backdoor was unlocked and his father keeps several rifles upstairs, he said.

Authorities do not believe Megna entered the house nor do they believe he is armed.

Smith said he left the farmyard without locking the outbuildings, including the one Megna was spotted in.

"It's kind of crazy," Smith said. "Out in a rural area like this, you don't expect things like this."

After the run-in with Megna this morning, Barnes County Chief Deputy Don Fiebiger said 40 to 50 officers surrounded a cornfield that includes land farmed by Smith and his neighbor Aaron Larson.

Authorities will focus the coordinated combining effort on a 310-acre cornfield owned by Smith and will extend the search to another section of some 640 acres, if needed.

Kenny Lang, who owns the land and lives on the wooded farmstead on the south side of the cornfield, sat in a pickup truck with Larson as they awaited word of Megna's capture.


Lang said he went to bed at 1:30 a.m. when the patrol airplane moved on.

"I had a little protection alongside me," he said.

Fiebiger said Megna was arrested in Sarasota, Fla., transported to New Jersey and was on its way to California when he escaped Tuesday.

A private prisoner transport company, TransCor America of Nashville, Tenn., was transporting Megna and six other people wanted for crimes, and planned to take Megna to Washington after stopping in California.

Washington authorities wanted Megna on new charges of child molestation and another sexual offense, Fiebiger said.

Authorities using thermal imaging devices and night-vision goggles overnight were unable to find Megna, who ran from the van during a stop about two miles west of Tower City, near the Oriska rest area.

Megna was not wearing any restraints.

A North Dakota Highway Patrol airplane circled the area with forward-looking infrared (FLIR). The Red River Valley SWAT team's Bearcat vehicle also is equipped with FLIR, and four handheld units were being used, as well, patrol Lt. Bryan Niewind said. About half a dozen officers had night-vision goggles.


Fiebiger said he spoke to a representative from TransCor America and an inmate who was in the van with Megna at the time of the escape.

Here's how Megna escaped, according to Fiebiger's interviews:

TransCor was transporting seven inmates when its two corrections officers stopped at a rest area along Interstate 94 near Tower City.

The corrections officers took five of the inmates, including one in a wheelchair, to the restroom and left one of the van's doors open for ventilation. Megna and another inmate remained inside the van's cage, which was closed with an unlocked padlock hanging in the cage's latch.

Megna shook the door three times, forcing the padlock out of the latch, and fled, according to the other inmate.

North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Bryan Niewind said rural residents were reminded to keep an eye out and lock the doors to their outbuildings, homes and vehicles.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said one of the biggest fears was that Megna would come across a farm vehicle left in a field with the keys still in it. Farmers were asked to check all of their vehicles, he said.

The National Weather Service forecast for today calls for sunny and windy conditions with highs in the upper 80s, which could lead to Megna becoming dehydrated, Niewind said.


"That would actually play in our favor," he said. "If he's starting to feel the effects of dehydration, he's probably going to want to give himself up."

Authorities planned to re-evaluate the search area throughout the day, he said. Law enforcement will have a presence in the communities of Tower City, Oriska and Buffalo throughout the day to make residents feel safe, he said.

Tower City is about 45 miles west of Fargo.

Laney said he and Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClaflin "fully intend to seek reimbursement" from the transport company, TransCor America of Nashville, Tenn., for the cost of the search.

"I mean, this is basic corrections 101. Secure your inmates," Laney said. "And now it's obviously become a North Dakota problem."

Megna is a convicted sex offender from Washington state, Laney said.

About 50 law enforcement officers were scouring the area, including deputies from Cass, Barnes and Stutsman counties along with the North Dakota State Patrol and Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Jamestown, Valley City police and the Red River Valley SWAT team north of Interstate 94. Shortly after dark, officials said a CodeRed alert was sent to Valley City-area residents warning that Megna, who was dressed in plain clothes - a red shirt, blue jeans and black tennis shoes - had escaped.

According to the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender registry, Megna is a high-risk sex offender from Pasco, Wash. The Highway Patrol describes Megna as 5 feet 7 inches tall, white, weighing 160 to 170 pounds with blond hair and hazel eyes.


Niewind said Megna has no known connections to the area, but the rural area had officers concerned Megna would be looking for unlocked vehicles or homes.

Megna was convicted in April 2009 on two counts of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.

In 2009, Washington's Tri-City Herald newspaper reported Megna admitted to hosting a party and giving alcohol to numerous teens, inappropriately touching three of them and exposing himself outside an apartment.

The other prisoners in the van were transported to the Jamestown jail.

Megna's escape marks the second time in the past eight days that area authorities have searched a cornfield to apprehend a suspect.

On Sept. 28, the Red River Valley SWAT team spent 11 hours searching for Dylan Thomas Pederson, 21, in a field near Argusville after he allegedly threatened to kill himself and a woman. He has been charged with four felonies, accused of fleeing into a cornfield, prompting a long search that involved two helicopters and an airplane.

TransCor is the same company that was hauling murderer Kyle Bell in 1999 when he escaped from a transport bus in New Mexico while he was being taken to Oregon. Bell confessed to Jeanna North's murder two years after her 1993 slaying. He was brought back into custody 88 days later after two appearances on "America's Most Wanted," which led to a Dallas apartment manager recognizing him as a tenant.

Bell is now serving his lifetime prison sentence at a high-security federal prison in Arizona as part of a prisoner swap agreement with North Dakota.

Bell's escape led to adoption of the Federal Transportation of Dangerous Criminals Act of 2000, also known as Jeanna's Act, which set minimum standards for employees of private transport companies and established specific regulations the companies must follow.

TransCor states on its website, "We take pride in being one of the first detainee/prisoner transportation companies to be in full compliance" with Jeanna's Act. The company touts itself as "the most experienced" such transport company in the country, having transported more than 1 million detainees and prisoners over the past 21 years.

What To Read Next
Get Local