Michael David Elliot, 40, was discovered missing about 9:30 p.m. Sunday from the Ionia Correctional Facility in mid-Michigan, the state Department of Corrections said.
"It appears that he created a hole at the bottom of the two perimeter fences of the correctional facility and then crawled through those holes," Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said in an email.
Department Director Dan Heyns said Elliot was dressed in a white kitchen uniform, which might have helped him blend in with snow and evade security at the prison. A review of surveillance footage suggests Elliot may have escaped about 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Once outside the prison, Elliot abducted a woman in Ionia using a knife or box cutter and drove her Jeep to a gas station in northern Indiana, roughly 100 miles southwest of Ionia near the Indiana-Michigan state line.
The LaGrange County Sheriff's Department said she was able to call 911 from a concealed cellphone while he was pumping gas at the store near Middlebury in Elkhart County.
The woman ran to a restroom where she locked herself inside. Elliot knocked on the door, but she stayed inside until police officers arrived. She wasn't harmed, officials said at the news conference.
An alert on Elliot has been issued to law enforcement nationwide, Heyns said.
"We believe that he is no longer in the state of Michigan, however citizens in the region should remain vigilant," Heyns said at a news conference at the prison. The woman told police officers he said he wanted to get as far from the prison as possible.
Elliot was serving life behind bars for four slayings in 1993 and has convictions for arson and armed robbery. Nothing in his record suggested he might escape, Heyns said.
"He had no assistance. This was an entirely one-man operation," the prisons chief said.
Michigan State Police said the vehicle Elliot stole from the woman whom he abducted was a 2004 red 4-door Jeep Liberty with a Michigan license plate 5FTG55.
Officers from the Michigan Department of Corrections, Michigan State Police and other law enforcement agencies are involved in the hunt for Elliot.
Measures have been taken to tighten security at the prison, Heyns said. Marlan said all other prisoners at the Ionia Correctional Facility were accounted for.