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UPDATED: Authorities 'have no idea' where sex offender is as manhunt continues today

Joseph Megna

UPDATED 7:36 a.m.

TOWER CITY, N.D. - Authorities using thermal imaging devices and night-vision goggles overnight were unable to find a convicted sex offender who escaped custody from a private company's transport van west of here Tuesday afternoon.

The search continued this morning for 29-year-old Joseph Megna, who ran from the van during a stop about two miles west of Tower City, near the Oriska rest area.

"At this point in time, we have no idea where he might be," North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Bryan Niewind said about an hour before sunrise. "We're assuming that he is still in the area. We haven't had any reports of anybody seeing him yet.

"There has been a lot of traffic throughout this area through the evening, so if he would have popped up on a road someplace, I'm assuming somebody would have probably called that in, being that this has been put out through the media, put out through CodeReds to all the residents in this area," Niewind added. "So basically everybody that lives around here should know about it."

A Highway Patrol airplane continues to circle 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, Niewind said. About half a dozen officers had night-vision goggles.

Authorities received no reports of stolen vehicles or suspicious activity on farmsteads in the area, he said. Rural residents have been reminded to keep an eye out and lock the doors to their outbuildings, homes and vehicles, Niewind said.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said one of the biggest fears is that Megna will 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 if he's still on foot, 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 will 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.

Megna was in the van with six other prisoners and two guards when the van stopped for a mandatory break. Officials said Megna was not locked inside and a guard saw Megna running north across Interstate 94 as they were returning from the rest stop building.

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. Megna was in transit from Washington to New Hampshire.

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.

Seven 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.