The Great Escape – Alcatraz Part 2

Located on the lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was the re-fortified prison for America’s most dangerous criminals. It held Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz. And while Alcatraz had long been considered un-escapable, during its re-fortification in the 1930s, it was given tough iron bars, strategically positioned guard towers, and strict rules. This made the thoughts of escape seem near impossible.

Despite the odds, from 1934 until its closure in 1963, 36 men attempted 14 separate escapes. Nearly all of them were caught or did not survive. But there are three inmates who’s fates still remain a mystery.

On June 12, 1962, the guard’s routine early morning bed checks turned out to be anything but. Three inmates were not in their cells. John Anglin, his brother Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris were nowhere to be found. All that was found in their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, real human hair, and flesh-toned paint, which had already fooled the night guards. The prison was sent into lockdown and a thorough search took place.

John William and Alfred Clarence Anglin were two of 13 children born in Donalsonville, Georgia. Their parents, George Robert and Rachael Van Miller Anglin, were farm workers. During the 1940s, they moved to Ruskin, Florida, 20 miles south of Tampa, where the farms and tomato fields provided them with a more reliable source of income. Still, each June, they would move north, sometimes as far as Michigan, to pick cherries. It is said that Clarence and John were inseparable.

They were arrested in 1956 for robbing a bank in Columbia, Alabama and were given 15 to 20 years. They were first sent to Atlanta Penitentiary where they met Frank Morris and Allen West. Later, they would be transferred to Florida State Prison and then to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. When they tried to escape from Leavenworth, they were sent to Alcatraz. Remember, nobody could be sent to Alcatraz from the courts, they had to earn their spots. John arrived on October 1, 1960, and Clarence got there on January 10, 1961. In about a year, they started to come up with an elaborate escape attempt with Frank Morris and Allen West.

Frank Lee Morris was born in Washington, DC and was orphaned at age 11. He spent the majority of his formative years in foster homes. He received his first conviction at 13, and by the time he reached his late teens, he had been arrested for crimes that ranged from narcotics possession to armed robbery. Morris was extraordinarily intelligent, and ranked in the top two percent of the general population according to an IQ test. He served time in Florida and Georgia, and then escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary while serving 10 years for bank robbery. He was recaptured a year later while burglarizing a home and was sent to Alcatraz in 1960. He, along with the Anglin brothers, escaped in June 1962 and were never seen again.

Also involved with this was a fourth conspirator who didn’t make it out. His name was Allen Clayton West. After being convicted of car theft in 1955, he was sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, and then to Florida State prison. After trying to escape from Florida, he was sent to Alcatraz in 1957. On the day of the escape, West could not finish removing the ventilator grill in his cell and ended up getting left behind.

Once the guards had realized an escape had taken place, the FBI was called in for help. The San Francisco office started a check all across the country for any records on the missing prisoners and their previous escapes. They even talked to relatives, compiled identification records, and told boat operators in the Bay to keep lookout for debris. In just two days, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and related to the men had been recovered. Later, some paddle-like pieces of wood and parts of a rubber inner tube were found. A homemade life-vest washed up on Cronkhite Beach, but searches did not find any other items in that area.

As days passed, the FBI, Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others started to find more evidence and piece together the escape plan. The investigators also received help from Allen West who never made it out of his cell that night.

The agents found that the group had started planning their escape the past December when one of them found an old saw blade. Using crude tools, which included a homemade drill they had made out of the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner, the inmates each loosened the air vents located at the back of their cells. They had to painstakingly drill closely spaced holes around the cover so that they could remove the entire wall section. Once they made it through, they had to hide the holes with whatever they had, cardboard, suitcase, whatever.

Behind each of the cells was a common, unguarded utility corridor. They walked down the corridor and climbed to the roof of their cell block inside the building, where they had created a secret workshop. In that workshop, they would take turns keeping watch for the guards on the evening before the last count. They would use different stolen and donated items to build and hide the things that they would need for their escape. They used over 50 raincoats that they had stolen to make life preservers and a 6 by 14 foot rubber raft, the seams of which had been carefully stitched together and vulcanized with hot steam pipes. They created wooden paddles and converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate their raft.

During all of this, they were also looking to find a way out of the building. The ceiling was at least 30 feet high, but using the network of pipes, they were able to climb up and pry open the ventilator at the top of the shaft. They would keep this in place by temporarily fashioning a fake bold made from soap.

On the evening of June 11th, they were ready to make their escape. Allen West, though, did not have his ventilator grill completely removed and ended up getting left behind. The three others got into the corridor, got the gear they needed, and climbed out of the ventilator and onto the prison roof. Then, they would shimmy down the bakery smokestack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, and snuck out to the northeast shore of the island. It was there that they launched their raft.

What happened after this is still a mystery. Where they able to make it across the Bay and reach Angel Island, and then move across to Raccoon Strait into Marin County as they had planned? Or did they end up drowning when the wind and waves got to be too much?

Many people have gone to great lengths to prove that they would have been able to survive, but the question still remains, did they? The investigation by the FBI at the time concluded that they wouldn’t have been able to live because of the following reasons.

  1. Crossing the Bay

Though people have been able to swim the more than mile-long distance from Alcatraz to Angel Island, the night that the men tried their escape, there had been strong currents in the frigid water, making their odds for survival very low.

  • Change of Plans

Their original plan, according the informant Allen West, was to steal clothes and a car as soon as they reached land. However, there were no thefts like those reported despite the high-profile nature of the case.

  • Family Ties

It seems as though the fugitives would have needed some help, but the FBI couldn’t find a connection anywhere. Furthermore, the families of the prisoner appeared unlikely to have the financial means to provide them any real support.

  • Missing For Years

For the 17 years that the FBI actively worked this case, there was no credible evidence that showed up to suggest the men were actually alive, either in the US or foreign countries.

The FBI officially closed this case on December 31, 1979, and handed over the responsibility to the US Marshals Service. The mystery remains to this day.

A former Alcatraz inmate, in 1993, name Thomas Kent told America’s Most Wanted that he had helped them plan their escape and provided “significant new leads” to the investigators. He said that Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend had agreed to meet them on the mainland an take them to Mexico. He chose not to take part in the escape because he was unable to swim. Official were skeptical about this information because he had received $2000 for the interview.

In a 2003 episode of Mythbusters, they tested the feasibility of an escape from the island aboard a raft made up of the same materials and tools that the inmates had available, and found that it was plausible.  A 2011 program on the National Geographic Channel said that footprints have been found Angel Island beach where the raft wreckage had been recovered, and the contrary to what the FBI had reported, a car had been stolen close by on the night of their escape.

In 2011, an 89-year-old man name Bud Morris, who claimed to be the cousin of Frank Morris, said that on eight or nine occasions before the escape, he had delivered envelopes of money to Alcatraz guards, presumably bribes. He further stated that he had met his cousin in person in a San Diego park shortly after they escaped. His daughter, who had been eight or nine at the time, said she was there at the meeting with “Dad’s friend, Frank,” but didn’t know about the escape.

On the 50th anniversary of the escape, the Anglin’s two sisters and two of their nephews made it public that they believed their brothers were alive and well, even though they would be well into their 80s. Marie Anglin Winder claimed that in 1962, she received a call from San Francisco after they had escaped. The caller had said, “This is John Anglin.” The family also had a Christmas card that they had received in the mail in 1962 that said, “To Mother, from John. Merry Christmas.” A Deputy US Marshal, Michael Dyke, said that there is a “possibility that they survived,” but also said that a Norwegian freighter reported seeing a body floating in the ocean around 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge around a month after their escape. “He had on prison clothes, a navy pea coat and a light pair of trousers, similar to what Alcatraz prisoners wore. There were no other missing people during that time period.”

Researches from Delft University, in 2014, used a computer model to conclude that if the men let at around midnight, when the current may have working in their favor, they could have made landfall. But, if they let during the hours right before or right after, the currents would have been too strong for them.

The History Channel presented a documentary in 2015 that shared circumstantial evidence gathered over their years from the Anglin family. Christmas cards that had the Anglin’s handwriting on it, and allegedly received by their family for three years after their escape were shared. While they did verify that the handwriting was the Anglin’s, their cards had no postmark, so experts couldn’t say when they had been delivered. They family also shared a stored from family friend Fred Brizzi, who had grown up with the brothers and claimed to have seen them in Rio de Janeiro in 1975. They shared photos that Brizzi supposedly had taken of them. They included one that showed two men who resembled John and Clarence and the farm near Rio where they were said to have been living.

Forensic experts that History Channel had hired confirmed that the pictures were taken in 1975, and they said that the two men were “more than likely” the Anglins. Other evidence included deathbed confessions from another of the Anglin siblings, Robert, who told the family members in 2010 that he had been in contact with the brothers from 1963 until around 1987. The film also shared an alternate escape theory, which involved electrical cords, which were reported missing on that night, as a tow line, attached to a passenger ferry that had left the island shortly after midnight.

Art Roderick, a former Deputy Marshal who had been working with the Anglin family, called the photo taken by Brizzi “absolutely the best actionable lead we’ve had,” but added, “it could sill all be a nice story which isn’t true.” The photo could also be a misdirection, aimed at moving the investigation away from the Anglin’s true whereabouts. Michael Dyke said that Brizze was “a drug smuggler and a conman.” An expert who was working for the Marshals Service said that the measurements of the people in the photo did not match up to the Anglin brothers, but the age and condition of the photo, and the fact that the men were wearing sunglasses, hindered efforts to make exact determination.

Their surviving family members, who said that they haven’t heard anything since Robert lost contact with the brothers in 1987, announced that they were going to go to Brazil to conduct a person search. But, they could be arrested by Brazilian authorities, since the Alcatraz escape was still an open Interpol case. According to a British newspaper, the FBI had been made aware of the rumors that they were in Brazil as early as 1965. Agents sent to Rio then did not find any credible evidence.

Allen West, who fully cooperated with the investigation and was not charged for his role, was transferred to McNeil Island after Alcatraz was closed. And then was sent back to Atlanta Penitentiary. He was released in 1967, only to get arrested once more in Florida the next year on grand larceny charges. At Florida State Prison he stab another prisoner to death in October 1972. He was serving multiple sentences, including life imprisonment on the murder conviction. He died of acute peritonitis on December 21, 178 at age 49.

To hear more about this escape, theories, and my thoughts, be sure to check out the podcast episode. If you would like to support the podcast and website, make sure that you check out the Patreon page. Become a Patron!

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