MOULTRIE -- Quick thinking at the Quik Mart on West Central Avenue had an escaped inmate in custody within an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon.

Colquitt County Correctional Institute inmate Zalmer J. Nichols of Missouri ran away from a work detail about 3:30 p.m. at the former Governmental Building on South Main Street. He got 11 blocks before county workers heading home from work recognized him walking near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 4:55 p.m.

Eddie and Ed Autrey, father and son, pulled their truck around and jumped out in the crowded convenience store parking lot.

"I said 'stop,' and he took off a'running," Ed Autrey said, adding he began chase.

Meanwhile, Eddie Autrey was flipping out a cell phone to call 911 and on impulse pointed it at Nichols and yelled, "Halt!" The fleeing escapee looked over his shoulder and saw the glint off the silver phone and stopped dead in his tracks, the county workers said.

The younger Autrey then put Nichols to the ground, asked his name and since he was off-duty and had no handcuffs, sat on Nichols until law enforcement came to take the escapee back into custody.

The Autreys are certified correctional officers and often supervise inmate work crews.

Two officers were supervising an inmate crew moving furniture in preparation for a surplus sale to be held at the old Governmental Building today. After guards noticed his absence, they began a search.

Nichols' uniform was found stuffed in an empty contraband locker where the drug squad used to house its offices in the northern wing of the building, officials said.

Police and deputies leading canine units searched the vacant building from basement to attic, wary of the many nooks and crannies that could easily conceal the slightly-built escapee. They were awaiting tracking dogs from the state correctional facility in Leesburg when a dispatch came over the radios that the escapee had been sighted.

More than a half dozen units plus the warden roared away from the governmental building toward the Quik Mart.

Nichols -- who CCCI officials said was 25 years old but the state corrections Web site identifies as being 30 -- had just transferred to CCCI three weeks ago with the status of trusty, which means he was allowed to work without supervision. The warden said he was generally quiet and had yet to receive visitors.

The Autreys said he appeared aimless as he walked toward town on West Central. Dampier said the escape seemed unpremeditated since Nichols had no money and left his jacket with a predicted freeze coming. He was wearing only a gray hooded sweatshirt with white shorts over thermal underwear and work boots, which were apparently taken from the remnants of the United Way clothing bank within the Governmental Building.

Another inmate working with him through the day was surprised at the escape, Dampier said.

"He wasn't acting suspicious," he said. "I'm sure it just hit him when he saw the opportunity."

Though CCCI inmates are working in the free world almost day in and day out, escapes are few and far between, the warden said. The last escape was four years ago when an inmate found a car with keys left in it near the CCCI workshop and stole it.

Nichols, in his fourth year of a five-year prison sentence for burglary, was eligible for parole this summer, Dampier said. He also faces charges in Missouri after his time is up in Georgia, he said.

Now, he could have as many as five years tacked onto his sentence.

Correctional officials said he was distraught when they put him in an isolation cell and have stepped up checking on the prisoner to every 15 minutes.

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