NEWS
01/26/2016 09:29 EST | Updated 01/26/2017 00:12 EST

Police say Alberta prisoner's escape aided by masked men 'unusual'

PEACE RIVER, Alta. — It was a scene right out of a TV crime drama when an armed, masked gunman stopped two Alberta correctional officers and freed a prisoner on his way to a medical appointment.

Mounties say guards were escorting Harley John Lay, 29, to the hospital in Peace River on Monday when they were confronted in the hospital parking lot.

The gunman and Lay jumped into a minivan driven by a third man and the trio hightailed it out of town.

"As of right now we do believe it was a planned escape and we're continuing the investigation ... trying to locate him and any associates he's with," Peace River RCMP Const. Nicole Viergutz said Tuesday.

"It's pretty unusual in my experience anyway."

The beige Dodge van had no visible licence plate and was last seen heading toward Highway 2.

Police don't believe that Lay poses a risk to the public, but are discouraging anyone from approaching him or the people he may be with.

Viergutz said Lay "does have matters before the courts," but declined to discuss his background further.

Court records indicate he most recently was behind bars facing numerous charges, including unlawful confinement, dating back to last July. He also faced a charge of escaping lawful custody in 2011 and has previously served time for drug trafficking.

Alberta correctional officers do not carry firearms.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees informed its members about what happened on the union website.

Both guards involved have been offered counselling and a union leader said the escape highlights the dangers corrections workers face every day.

"It is a dangerous job. You never know what's going to happen. We're fortunate nobody got hurt and that's due to the professionalism of these officers," said Erez Raz, a union vice-president and a correctional officer himself.

Raz said correctional officers have not been equipped with firearms since the 1970s and the decision is totally up to the Alberta government. He doesn't think it would have made a difference in this case.

"If someone comes up to you with a gun to your head and says, 'Give me what you have,' I don't think I'm going to pull a gun on him knowing he's got a gun facing me," Raz said.

"It would have caused a lot more damage than good. It could have escalated right from there."

The union has called for a full report, including a "hazard assessment" of what occurred.

"It's where the employer sits down with the affected workers to debrief, and look at what occurred, and identify the risks and the controls that will be put into control as a consequence of what occurred," said health and safety representative Dennis Malayko.

— By Bill Graveland in Calgary

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter