“The Rock” Alcatraz
yas! | By Cara Stiles |
Though the prison has been closed for decades, Alcatraz has earned its place in infamy. In its heyday, “The Rock” was considered impenetrable. At least thirty six prisoners attempted to escape the island – all were captured, shot, or swallowed by the sea.
A Shocking Message
Back in January 2013, the San Francisco Police Department received a shocking message. “My name is John Anglin,” the handwritten note began. “I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.” Dropped into the laps of authorities was a long overdue clue to one of the most notorious mysteries in US history.
For years, the escapees were presumed dead simply because it seemed to be the most plausible outcome of the case that had stumped law enforcement for years. However, the letter recovered in 2013 told a very different story. Naturally, some skeptics cast doubt on the validity of the document.
An Impossible Escape
What makes this particular escape remarkable is the fact that Alcatraz was designed to make it virtually impossible to escape. Until its closure in 1963, only the most despicable criminals were sent to the maximum security prison.
A History of Failed Jailbreaks
Believe it or not, these crooks were not the first individuals with enough moxie to attempt escape. At least a few dozen incarcerated inmates had taken the same risks over the years. Twenty three individuals were quickly captured and brought back behind bars.
The Men Behind the Plan
Four men were a part of the group meticulously plotting a path to freedom – John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Lee Morris, and Allen West. The four men had cells near each other and endless hours to perfect their master plan.
Frank Lee Morris
Frank Lee Morris was nothing short of a criminal mastermind. At the age of 11, he was orphaned and forced to look after himself as he was shuffled between foster homes. Just two years later, he was convicted of his first crime. Over the years, his cunning increased and he developed into a skilled criminal.
A Master Escape Artist
Unfortunately for those supervising him, Morris was never one to follow rules. Against all odds, he managed to escape the high security conditions in Louisiana. From there, he remained on the lam for about a year. During that time, he fell right back into his previous life of crime.
The Anglin Brothers
Born in Georgia, the Anglin brothers moved around early in life to help their parents with seasonal farm work. Two of thirteen children, they maintained a close bond that spanned far beyond adolescence.
Partners in Crime
Naturally, John and Clarence were perfect partners in crime as they reached adulthood. Like Morris, the two were serial bank robbers. Targeting establishments after hours, they took precautions to avoid interacting with or injuring others.
A Friendship Forms
Morris wasn’t the only one with escape on his mind. Several times, the Anglin brothers attempted to escape Atlanta Penitentiary. This eventually landed them at Alcatraz, where they met up with Frank Lee Morris.
The Perfect Storm
In order to understand precisely how the men made their way off the island prison, there are a few factors to take into consideration. Firstly, the four men were among Alcatraz’s very few non-violent offenders. Because they didn’t have a record of harming others, they were able to function under the radar and attract less attention from prison guards.
Fooling the Authorities
So, why exactly did the inmates need to accrue a collection of supplies? Their highly complex plan to escape Alcatraz, the notoriously isolated jailhouse, involved leaving behind handmade, human-like dummies.
Crafting a Decoy
Each member of the team had their own set of responsibilities to take care of prior to the night of the great escape. The task of creating dummy heads to fill the beds of the escapees fell on the shoulders of the Anglin brothers.
The dummies were just one part of the plan. The team also fashioned tools like picks and wrenches using everyday items, such as cafeteria spoons. With them, they’d chip away at bits of the wall whenever they were afforded the chance to do so.
A Fortress Deteriorating
The task of fashioning tunnels and holes in the foundation of the prison was made easier by the fact that Alcatraz itself was beginning to crumble. Years of exposure to saltwater destroyed the pipes, and constant leaks deteriorated the walls over time.
Blocking out the Noise
Believe it or not, guards didn’t notice the banging and chipping of the inmates at work. This was thanks to the prison reforms of the 1960’s, which allowed inmates an hour of music. During this time, the prison would be filled with noise.
No Man’s Land
Eventually, the prisoners discovered that the utility corridor was essentially unguarded. If the men could get the holes in each of their cells wide enough, they’d be able to climb up three floors to access the roof of the building. The only obstacle they’d have to overcome would be to shimmy up a large shaft to make it outside of the building.
By the spring of 1962, both Anglin brothers and Morris had fashioned holes big enough to make the escape. The passageways were a claustrophobics nightmare, hardly large enough for a human body to squeeze through. But that was all the men needed to pull off their plan.
Waiting for a Sign
When all of the preparations were in place, all the men had to do was wait for Allen West to finish his escape route and signal that he was ready to go. Once men West was ready, the gang would be able to slip out at a moment’s notice thanks to months of preparation on their end.
The Big Day
When lights went out on the day the gang received West’s signal, the plan was finally put into action. They weren’t entirely confident in whether or not they’d succeed – chances were high that they wouldn’t make it out of the ordeal alive. However, the promise of freedom was enticing enough that they were willing to take the risk.
A Snag in the Plan
Unfortunately, they ran into a snag over the course of their escape. The Anglin brothers and Morris were able to get out of their cells with ease, but the same could not be said for Allen West. Although he had signaled the gang, he had evidently misjudged the size of the hole he had built.
Leaving One Behind
The men had been working together on their escape for months, so the decision to leave West behind was not one that they took lightly. However, the group knew that they weren’t left with many options. If they had tried to widen West’s hole on the spot, they would have certainly garnered attention from the guards.
Journey to the Shore
After squeezing through their tunnels, the men entered the utility corridor and climbed up 30 feet of plumbing to make it onto the roof. They then had to cross the rooftop and climb down an additional 50 feet of piping to make it to the ground.
Sounding the Alarm
At around 11:30 at night, the raft was ready to go and the gang set sail. They were never seen or heard from again, and the next morning the guards finally discovered that the men were missing. .
Too Little, Too Late
Although Allen West was left behind, he hadn’t quite given up on his hopes for freedom. Continuing to work on his hole through the night, he was finally able to squeeze through and make it out of his cell. Straight away, he ran after his three co-conspirators.
Working with Authorities
Allen West crawled back to his bunk and waited til morning, when the alarms inevitably went off. The entire prison was searched, and eventually the authorities deduced that West was the only individual with any knowledge of the escape plan.
Holes in the Plot
There was a hole in West’s story – there weren’t any reports of robberies within the two week period following the escape. Either the men didn’t make it past the bay, or they landed somewhere else entirely.
An Ice Cold Escape
Some of the men’s personal belongings were found floating in the freezing waters of the bay in the days following the escape, but there were never any bodies recovered. Had the men fallen overboard, they almost certainly would have perished – the temperatures of the San Francisco Bay hover in the low 50’s, regardless of the season.
A Fruitless Investigation
Only one hint that the men may have perished ever emerged, about a month after the escape. A Norwegian freighter spotted the sighting of a body about 17 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge, donned in clothes similar to a prisoner’s uniform. However, by the time authorities made it out to the area, the alleged body was long gone.
According to a 2015 documentary produced by the history channel, evidence emerged that at the very least, the Anglin brothers had survived the ordeal. For instance, the family received handwritten Christmas cards that matched their script (although the delivery date could not be confirmed).
A deathbed confession from one of Anglin’s many siblings further pointed to the possibility that John and Clarence may be making a new life for themselves elsewhere. Just before Robert Anglin passed away, he confessed that he had been in contact with the two between the years of 1963 and 1987.
The Past Revealed
When the letter written by John Anglin was received by the police department, it seemed to confirm some of the rumors that had been floating around over the years. “We all made it that night, but barely,” Anglin reminisces. He then goes on to explain that Frank and Clarence had passed away in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
An Unconventional Deal
One of the last lines of the note proved to be the most shocking, as Anglin confessed that he was most recently living in “Southern California”. If the letter is indeed authentic, Anglin may have been living within a few hours of the prison he tried so desperately to escape all of those years ago.
The letter concluded with an attempt at a negotiation. If a television announcement was made promising that he would be imprisoned for no more than a year and would receive adequate medical attention, Anglin would reveal his exact location.
Results from the Lab
A lab full of forensic analysts searched for possible traces of DNA or partial fingerprints that might have been left behind on the paper’s surface. Handwriting experts also were brought in the compare the letter against writing samples sourced from all three escapees.
The US Marshals Respond
In the past, US Marshals had claimed that it was certainly possible that the prisoners could have escaped Alcatraz alive. Nevertheless, after the letter was released to the public, a representative claimed that the Marshals did not believe in the legitimacy of the note.
The letter nly reached the public eye when a local news station was provided with a copy from an unnamed source. When the story broke, the Marshals were forced to provide a statement on the matter.
With renewed interest in their case, a group of researchers got to calculating what sort of conditions the inmates would have met the night of their escape. According to their findings, the current would have been in their favor if they left around midnight and there’s a very high likelihood that they would have been able to survive the treacherous waters.
An Alcatraz Employee Speaks
In March 2018, the last guard to leave Alcatraz shed a bit more light on the situation. In honor of the 55th anniversary of the prison’s closing, Jim Albright agreed to an interview in which he was asked whether he believed Anglin and company could have survived their escape.
Where are they Now?
To this day, there still isn’t conclusive evidence on the fates of Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether law enforcement was ever able to get in touch with the author of the 2013 letter.