Sunday, August 9, 2009

Alcatraz 75th Anniversary - Alumni Discuss Escapes

The greatest mystery of Alcatraz surrounds the 'dummy heads' escape of three men in 1962.

Their escape was still a disputed topic on the Rock today as over 75 Alcatraz Alumni, including an ex-con and former guards and residents, gathered to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the
opening of the federal penitentiary...see previous blog
for first part of previously untold escape story

'I am certain that they drowned because nothing has ever been heard of

them,' said 85-year-old Bill Long, the guard that discovered they were missing on the morning of June 12, 1962.

Bank robbers, brothers John and Clarence Anglin, and Frank Lee Morris, convicted of crimes ranging from narcotics to armed robbery, had planned and worked on their escape for over a year with a fourth man, Allen West, a car thief. All were in Alcatraz because of escape attempts in previous prisons.

Once the prisoners had worked out their escape from the cell blocks, they then had to find a means to cross the treacherous waters of the Bay, not to San Francisco but to Angel Island and the Marin headland on the opposite side to the city. They collected prison-issue rubberized raincoats from some of the inmates to make a raft and life vests. To inflate the raft, they used a concertina, one of the musical instruments provided for the prisoners' 'music hour.'

The first thing the prisoners would have had to do on reaching land was to steal a car, said Bill. They would also have had to rob for money. There were no stolen cars reported, nor was anyone robbed at that time.

'There's a theory someone was supposed to meet them,' he said, dismissing it, and likewise rumours that they made it to South America, but the FBI's checked everything out, he shrugged.

The raft was flimsy, he said, being put together in small squares. 'They were trying to go to Angel Island - the largest island in the Bay - that raft didn't make it, I'm sure,' he said.

The Anglin brothers were 'dumb-hill hillybillies' who had started with petty crimes and graduated to bank robbery, said Bill. A third brother, Alfred, convicted of the same bank robbery had remained in jail in Atlanta because he hadn't joined them in an escape attempt.

Morris, however, was a different kettle of fish. 'He had an IQ of 118, something like that,' said Bill. 'He's the guy that devised the raft but he didn't pick the tides very well.'

The night of the escape, the tide was flowing fast at 6 knots.

A replica of the escape had been attempted for a TV documentary. Picking a professional swimmer and a tide running at the same speed, the 'escape' had to be abandoned and the swimmer rescued because the tide was pushing him out of the Golden Gate, said Bill.

Generally, the men might not have been in bad shape physically but they had had no training. In fact, one of the inmates reported to the authorities afterwards that John Anglin had described himself as a poor swimmer.

Former guard, 82-year-old Frank Heaney, with the distinction of being the youngest-ever guard on Alcatraz, agreed. Asked by one of the audience about the escape as he was giving a talk about his experiences, he thought that conditions that night defeated the men. The water temperature was cold as usual at 55 degrees, the distance to land was about one mile to one-and-a-quarter miles, and the tide was running very swiftly out to the Golden Gate, he said.

'So we think they drowned and got swept out into the ocean. No-one knows for sure,' he added. He thought it significant, though, that Fox TV had once offered a $1 million reward for information.

'That's how much they think those inmates drowned,' he said. But of the escape plan itself, he said, 'And what a genius escape that was!'

Ex-bank robber, 76-year-old Darwin Coon, who was a friend of the Anglins and helped in their escape, disagreed that they had drowned in the attempt.

'They got away from here, that's my opinion,' he said. Darwin's view is that the Anglins simply went back to the Everglades of Florida where they were from, and disappeared. Their bodies were never discovered, he maintained.

In the days after the escape, the remains of the raft, homemade paddles, two life vests - one in the Bay, the other outside the Golden Gate - and two packages containing Anglin family photos and sheets of paper with names and addresses on, were found floating in the water.

Several weeks later, a body was found outside the Bay but was so badly decomposed - CSI hadn't been invented! - that it remained unidentified. The colour of the clothing was blue, though bleached by the water, and so a query remains as to whether it was blue prison issue clothing.

Darwin had earned the reputation of being a 'solid con', one who wouldn't squeal on other inmates. He knew the Anglins from their time together in the Kansas prison and when asked by John to help, he took the risk because he was a friend.

The irony of Darwin's criminal career is that he was sent to Alcatraz in September 1959 from Kansas for a crime he DIDN'T commit: the theft of prison tools.

At Alcatraz, Darwin worked in the kitchen as a cook. Shortly after, an inmate on the maintenance team slipped him a screwdriver. At a prearranged time, he went to the restroom, unscrewed the cap on the waste line and lowered the screw driver down on a cord to the waiting John.

Over a few months Darwin passed on more tools and one day in the exercise yard surreptitiously handed over his raincoat.

He discovered afterwards that other prisoners were doing the same.

Darwin was asked by someone in the audience as he spoke, how would he have devised an escape plan?

'I would do it the same way, with dummies,' he replied. With guards checking prisoners every 15 minutes during the day, the nighttime was the only possibility.

The question remains, however, why did the Fourth Man, Allen West, remain in his cell on the night, and who was the inventor of the 'genius escape'?

Bill believes he has the answers. At the time, West said that work on the vent in his cell wall wasn't finished and by the time he had squeezed out into the cavity, the others had vanished onto the roof. This meant that West wasn't able to get through the air vent and onto the roof by himself because of its height, the others having hoisted the first man up and pulled the last man through.

Not so, said Bill. 'I do think he stayed behind and he was smart.'

The raft, said Bill, was small and would only take three men. The Anglins and Morris were planning to abandon West on the shore, and West knew this.

Even though he was the mastermind of the scheme. In the early years after the escape, Morris was credited with devising the plan. But others began to say it was West.

It was West who spotted the possibility when he was working at the top of the block, said Bill, confident of his sources on both this and the intent to abandon West on the Rock.

'I have heard that from some very reliable inmates. I'd been there about ten years before the escape. I got to know some of the inmates pretty well.'

pics by Chris show: Alcatraz water tower; Darwin; Frank; Bill

More firsthand stories of life on the Rock and it's notorious inmates in next blogs

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI have released its documents on the escape:

A Summary of all the Escape Attempts:

No comments: