Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mystery of the Alcatraz ‘Escape’

Alcatraz Island seen from the San Francisco Bay

Alcatraz Island seen from the San Francisco Bay

Originally published June 19 2013

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island seemed the perfect place for the “escape proof” prison called “The Rock.” It had held prisoners since the Civil War but was re-fortified into what was considered the most secure penitentiary in 1934. From that year until the year of its closing in 1962, 36 men attempted 14 escapes. Most were caught or known to have died.

However, the fate of three who attempted escape on June 11, 1962 remains a mystery.

On the morning of June 12, Lieutenant Bill Long ordered the morning count. Long noted that the guard for one area failed to come back to report it. Long walked toward that area and saw the guard hurrying toward Long, shouting, “Bill, I got a guy who won’t get up for the count!”

Long said, “I’ll get him up.”

Long went to the indicated cell. A man appeared to be asleep. Long reached through the bars and hit the pillow on the cot, shouting, “Get up for count!”

A seemingly decapitated head fell to the floor!

Frank Morris

Frank Morris

Shocked, Long jumped. Then he realized it was a fake head. As BBC News comments, the head was “made of a mixture of soap, toilet paper and real hair.” Pillows had been bunched under the covers to represent the prisoner’s body.

He raced to the phone to sound the alarm.

It was soon found that Frank Morris and brothers John Anglin and Clarence Anglin were absent from their cells. Each of them had placed a dummy head at an end of the cot and bunched pillows under covers.

An investigation soon revealed that one escape conspirator, Allen West, was still in his cell. Like the others, he had planned to escape through a hole dug through his cell’s vent. Robert D. McFadden writes in The New York Times that West could not open the vent because “he had used cement to shore up the crumbling concrete and it had hardened.”

Allen West

Allen West

West readily talked to investigators about the escape plans. West claimed that in December 1961, he was cleaning a utility corridor and came across items wrapped in cloth. They were old saw blades, probably from a derailed escape project. He shared his discovery with the Anglin brothers and Morris, all of whom had adjacent cells.

The foursome enjoyed a natural affinity. West was a habitual car thief. The Anglins were born to impoverished farmers. McFadden writes, “The two brothers became inept burglars and were imprisoned in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where they tried to escape repeatedly.” After a 1958 hold-up, they were sent to the Leavenworth prison and then to Alcatraz. Morris had spent his childhood shuffling between foster homes and started his career as a robber when only 13. He was imprisoned in a Louisiana prison for bank robbery, escaped, was captured in a burglary, and sent to Alcatraz in 1960.

The conspirators fashioned a drill from a vacuum cleaner. With the makeshift drill and spoons stolen from the prison dining area, they dug through the concrete walls around the air vents so they could squeeze through them into the utility corridor. Inmate Darwin Coon did not plan to join the escape but years later said he helped John Anglin steal tools like screwdrivers and pliers. Coon worked in the kitchen and followed John’s request that Coon deliberately break things so a friend of John’s who worked in maintenance could come to fix them and “accidentally” leave tools behind that Coon smuggled to John Anglin in his cell.

Clarence Anglin

Clarence Anglin

The four plotters used cardboard and paint to conceal their work. Allowed the privilege of a musical instrument, Morris obscured the noise by playing his accordion.

They constructed dummy heads topped by actual hair collected from the prison barbershop.

Laura Sullivan writes for NPR.org that the conspirators “stole prison-issue raincoats to craft a boat and life vests.” They used thread and cement to glue the raincoat raft together in a way they learned from Popular Mechanics magazine. They stole a concertina from an inmate to use as a bellows to inflate the raft.

West told investigators that he asked the other three to delay the escape until he could re-open the hole around his vent but they refused.

John Anglin

John Anglin

On the night of June 11, 1962, Morris and the Anglin brothers left the dummy heads on their cots, grabbed the raft and other materials, and then shimmied through their widened air vents to the roof. Carrying their materials, they managed to avoid being seen by those on the gun tower as they stole over the roof. Then they shimmied down a 50-foot wall through a kitchen vent pipe.

They climbed two 12-foot barbed-wire fences and headed for a part of the shoreline out of the range of gun towers and searchlights. The concertina inflated the raft.

They floated into the bay. Just how far they got and what happened to them is a mystery.

According to FBI archives, “Our office in San Francisco set leads for offices nationwide to check for any records on the missing prisoners . . . We also interviewed relatives of the men and compiled all their identification records and asked boat operators in the Bay to be on the lookout for debris.”

The Coast Guard, the California Highway Patrol, and the police of many cities searched for the desperadoes.

Most observers believe the trio drowned. However, Sullivan writes, “Statistically, the majority of bodies that drown in the bay float to the top after a few days. In this case, not even one of the bodies surfaced.”

J. Campbell Bruce reported for The Chronicle that on June 15, 1962, Coast Guard members discovered a “watertight plastic bag containing names and addresses the fugitives planned to contact” in water near the Golden Gate Bridge. James Burnett, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director at the time, remarked that authorities believed “they would not abandon these names, which they obviously carried for contacts, unless they were drowning.”

Convinced the group probably drowned, the FBI closed its case on them on December 31, 1979.

However, the U.S. Marshals Service continues to investigate. Since the bodies of most people who drown in the bay surface within a week, it defies the odds that all three escapees would vanish. Darwin Coon is certain they successfully escaped, as are some who are impressed with the meticulous planning the men put into it.

That leaves open the question of what they did if they made it to shore on either the raft or by swimming. U. S. Marshal Michael Dyke remarked, “If they were able to steal a car, even though there was a nationwide manhunt, there’s all kinds of roads they could be on where they would never have been seen. The other possibility is they would have went out of the country.

They would need civilian clothing and there were no reports of men’s clothes stolen in the vicinity of California they might have reached.

One thing that makes it unlikely they survived is the fact that they have not been arrested for other crimes. It seems unlikely all three of these career criminals could have gone straight.

“Sometimes I hope they did escape because then I can catch them,” Dykes wryly admits.

If the three elderly ex-crooks who escaped from Alcatraz still live, there are many people who would like their answers to questions about their escape and its aftermath.

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