The escape from Alcatraz

An enduring mystery

Created date

April 19th, 2018
Alcatraz, known as "the rock", is an island off the coast of California

Alcatraz, known as "the rock", is an island off the coast of California

In the dark hours of June 11-12, 1962, three men left an infamous mark in history. Between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., Frank Morris, along with brothers John and Clarence Anglin, broke out of a San Francisco island prison once thought to be escape-proof.

Its name was Alcatraz.

Surrounded by the cold waters and strong currents of the San Francisco Bay, the escape entailed a mile-and-a-quarter crossing to the city’s wharf. When the guards finally discovered that the three inmates were missing during the morning roll call, an intensive ten-day search ensued by land, sea, and air.

Law enforcement found little more than remnants of the plot.

Two days after the breach, a Coast Guard cutter recovered a paddle 200 yards from nearby Angel Island, as well as a plastic-wrapped wallet filled with the photos, names, and addresses of the Anglins’ friends and family. On June 21, pieces of rubber raincoat material used to build a raft washed up on Angel Island’s beach; and the following day, prison officials discovered a deflated life jacket of the same material floating 50 yards from Alcatraz.

Authorities never claimed a single body. Seventeen years later, the FBI closed its file on the case.

Based on circumstantial evidence and expert conjecture, the Bureau concluded that the three prisoners had drowned. But after 55 years, some historians and law enforcement officers are reluctant to go on record with a definitive finding, giving rise to one of the biggest mysteries of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

An ingenious plan

The plot that led to the escape was a screenwriter’s delight. Though only three men went through with the plan, there were four involved.

The masterminds were Allen West and Frank Morris, both of whom had high IQs.

After an unsuccessful escape from a Florida penitentiary, where he was incarcerated for car theft, West earned a transfer to the seemingly secure Alcatraz facility in 1957. Similarly, Morris, convicted of bank robbery, busted out of a Louisiana prison only to be rearrested for burglary.

In 1960, he became Alcatraz inmate AZ1441.

Not as bright, the Anglin brothers were equally as criminal as their coconspirators. The two had been robbing banks since the early 1950s.

They were also excellent swimmers who, in their youth, regularly swam the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

Indeed, the trip across the bay has long been the central element in this mystery. Could they have made it?

Alcatraz expert weighs in

John Cantwell, an Alcatraz interpretive ranger with the National Park Service, although unable to speak directly to the point, references his own experience.

“I’ve been a permanent ranger on the island for 27 years—longer than any convict ever did time,” he says. “I’ve done the swim; it took me 40 minutes to go a mile and a quarter from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf.”

That’s without a raft, but also after months of training and with the benefit of tidal tables. Cantwell further notes the water’s temperature.

“You don’t ever get used to 52-degree water,” he says. “It puts a shock through your system; beyond one hour of exposure, hypothermia sets in.”

What is not in question is the means of escape.

How they did it

Built in the 1850s, Alcatraz was decaying from the inside out by the 1960s. The salt air had rusted and swelled the rebar inside the cell house walls, significantly weakening the concrete.

These walls were thick. Yet, the four inmates realized they could cut around the air vents in their cells with a drill they built out of a vacuum cleaner motor.

In doing so, they opened a portal to a utility space containing a labyrinth of pipes that led to the roof.

Convincing the guards that this area needed plumbing and structural repairs, the four undertook a “work project” wherein they crafted a raft and lifejackets out of raincoats in the secluded corridor above their cells. In addition, they fashioned dummy heads to fool the guards, who performed 12 prisoner counts a day.

Concerned about the likelihood of capture or death, West stayed behind. The other three, at the agreed-upon hour, slipped through their portals, which they’d kept covered with phony grates.

The cons climbed the pipes to the roof, exited through an air vent, and slid down a smokestack at the north end of the building. They then hopped a couple of fences, inflated their raft using a stolen concertina, and paddled off into the night.

The world has since pondered the fate of the famed escapees.

The case is currently in the hands of the U.S. Marshals, who are in possession of a letter allegedly sent to San Francisco Police in 2013 by an ailing John Anglin. It read in part:

My name is John Anglin. I escape [sic] from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely!

The Marshals insist that the letter is bogus.

“According to the U.S. Marshals, it doesn’t fit Anglin’s penmanship,” Cantwell explains, adding that “the results of the DNA tests didn’t match either.”

Cantwell, moreover, says it’s possible but unlikely that a trio of career criminals would have suddenly gone straight and become “Tibetan monks.”

“Out of the three, you would think at least one would have blown it and committed a crime,” he speculates. “There’s been a $1 million reward for information leading to their capture, and no one has turned them in.”

Still, the fact that authorities had located no bodies in a bay where the swim is completely doable continues to gnaw at historians and law enforcement.

“Whether they made it across or not, they beat the system,” says Cantwell. “They got away from a place in which they didn’t want to be locked up—if they died escaping, they died free.”

The case remains a mystery.