Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Garrow

Escape From Fishkill

Fishkill Correctional Facility, main building
Fishkill Correctional Facility, main

Garrow spent the first few years of incarceration at Dannemora and Auburn Prison. In both institutions, he claimed that he received unfair treatment and was the victim of police brutality at the hands of the New York State Police. He also said that he was partially paralyzed by gunshot wounds he suffered during his capture in 1973. As a result, Garrow filed a $10 million lawsuit against New York State citing these and other complaints. Perhaps due to his lawsuit, Garrow was transferred from Dannemora to the less secure facility at Fishkill, New York, where living conditions were a vast improvement over what he was accustomed to at Clinton. The Corrections Department later said that the inmate's physical condition was the only issue in the transfer. "No consideration other than the fact we had an immobile inmate," was the motivating factor in the transfer, a deputy commissioner told the press in early September 1978.

Fishkill Correctional Facility is a sprawling complex located in the rolling hills outside the village of Fishkill in Duchess County. It was built in 1896 on 600 acres of farmland and became a medium-security prison during the 1960s. Fishkill also contained the notorious Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where, until the 1970s, inmates were sometimes incarcerated for decades for minor infractions. But the prison was the target of a great deal of criticism during this time for its security procedures. From 1973 to 1978, an incredible 32 inmates had escaped from the prison. Due to his medical condition, Garrow was placed in a housing unit called the Elderly and Handicapped section, better known as the E & H building.

On the night of September 8, 1978, Garrow placed a dummy that he had constructed from rags and wire onto his cell bed. He tucked a .32-caliber automatic handgun into his waistband and walked out the front door of his cell. An investigation later indicated the gun was smuggled into Fishkill prison in the bottom of a bucket of fried chicken. (Garrow's 18-year-old son, two inmates and an inmate's wife were ultimately arrested and charged for the incident.) Because he was held in the E &H building, where, security was not as good as it should have been, Garrow was able to walk out of the ward unchallenged. He exited the building and carefully made his way to the chain link fence that surrounded the facility. He managed to climb the fence and drop down to the other side. Then he crawled to the edge of the woods several hundred yards away from the E & H building. Once he had reached an area where he felt safe hidden away in the underbrush, he secreted himself in a spot where he could observe the prison.

By morning, guards discovered Garrow missing. Retired Correction Lieutenant Larry Lisotta, 65, recalled the event well. "We couldn't believe it. The most notorious prisoner in the system had escaped right under the noses of the guards. It was hard to take," he said recently. "The entire staff went on alert. The Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT.) was called out from Greenhaven," Lt. Lisotta said. The CERT was a special squad made up of specially trained personnel to handle prison emergencies, such as riots, hard to control inmates and escapes. Police also responded and surrounded the area. Officials believed that Garrow had already left the area and was on his way to the Adirondacks where he felt safe. "The feeling was that he was already in Syracuse," said Lt. Lisotta. "We searched every inch of the area around Fishkill Prison. But it was a big area and covered with forests. Also right next to the prison was a major interstate highway, route 84 where he could have hijacked a car somehow. But the truth was we didn't know where he was."

 The public was outraged and scared, especially the communities near the prison facility. Garrow's crimes and his propensity for violence were well known. "I can't think of anybody more dangerous to have running around loose," a police representative told the press.

Search teams from nearby police departments flooded into western Dutchess County. Hundreds of cops, assisted by a wide variety of equipment, aircraft, police vehicles and dogs, descended upon the area around Fishkill Correctional Facility. All stolen car reports in nearby communities were meticulously investigated. Roadblocks were set up everywhere. But unknown to anyone at the time, Garrow was less than two hundred yards away from the prison. He had found a hole in the ground, crawled in and covered himself with brush and leaves. For three days, he lay there, not daring to make a sound, studying the activity around him. More than once, searchers came within a few feet of where he was hiding. Still, he did not flinch.

Fishkill prison tree line where Garrow hid.
Fishkill prison tree line where
Garrow hid.

On the third day of Garrow's escape, a CERT team member made a pivotal discovery. Not far from the prison walls, a correction officer located a portable transistor radio. Officials quickly traced the serial number of the radio and found it belonged to Garrow. "That radio convinced us that he was still near the prison," said Lt. Lisotta, "because we knew we had searched that area previously and no radio was found."

On September 11, at about 6 p.m., Greenhaven Correction Officer Dominic Arena, 25, performed another search through the fields on the western edge of the prison.. This area was just a few yards from a chain link fence that encompasses the grounds of Fishkill prison. It was also just a stone's throw from Interstate 84, where thousands of cars passed by every day. "We had an idea that someone could pull over and pick up Garrow very easily without being caught. I think that whoever it was probably drove by several times but was afraid to stop because we had so many officers out searching the area," said Lt. Lisotta recently. As Officer Arena walked slowly though the bush that afternoon, he heard a quick movement a few feet away. At first he thought it might have been an animal. Suddenly, Robert Garrow emerged from his hiding place and began firing his automatic handgun. Arena was hit in the leg by the first blast and fell to the ground. The CERT. team opened up with shotguns, rifles and handguns. Garrow was hit with a barrage of gunfire. He was sent reeling backwards and was dead before he hit the ground. An autopsy later determined that three .38-caliber bullets had pierced his heart and lungs.

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