History’s Mysteries: Escaping Alcatraz

On the Tuesday morning of June 12, 1962, everything appeared normal at the U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.  It had been a quiet Monday night on Cell Block B and nothing out of the ordinary had happened overnight since the 9:30PM bed check the night before.  Groggy-eyed inmates began to wake up and prepare for the day, but today was anything but normal.   

As the guards went cell by cell for the routine 7:15AM bed check, making sure that the inmates were up and getting dressed, three inmates appeared to be sleeping in and ignoring the guards demands to get up.  When the guards entered the cells of Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin and Clarence Anglin, all serving time for bank robbery, the three men had vanished.  To fool the guards, in their place they had left dummies with heads made of plaster and real hair and painted flesh tone.  But where did they vanish to and how?

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay.

Although it was not immediately known if the men had left the island, Warden Olin Blackwell immediately locked down the prison and contacted the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI to get help in the search. Within hours of the discovery an intense manhunt involving several law enforcement agencies had ensued in the effort to find the three escapees.  If the inmates did get off the island, they had at least a 12-hour head start before the manhunt got underway. 

The San Francisco Police Department issued an all-points bulletin covering the entire city.  Police units in the Harbor District were put on special alert due to the close proximity to Alcatraz Island.   The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter and four patrol boats to search the bay north of Alcatraz Island to Marin County.  Debris boats searched the bay for possible evidence. The California Highway Patrol searched the bay’s coastline and the approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Even California’s State Harbor Police were searching for the fugitives.

At the very beginning of the investigation, the FBI believed that the three men were headed to Angel Island which is two miles from Alcatraz.  A confidential informant in Alcatraz told the FBI that the men would attempt to reach Angel Island by using a homemade raft and then cross Raccoon Straight to escape through Marin County.  Once they reached the mainland, the men would slice up their raft and life vests and discard the pieces in the bay to get rid of the evidence.  They would then steal a car and clothes from a shopping center.  One hundred armed soldiers from the Army’s 561st Engineering Company and 35 military police were dispatched to Angel Island to search for the fugitives in the thick brush.

Did you know that Washington State has a prison island?

Warden Blackwell wasn’t quite ready to believe that the men were headed for Angel Island, “I am not convinced that they’re not still on Alcatraz.” The warden then directed a dozen guards to search the rocky shore of the 12-acre island, but the escapees were never found.  By 7:28PM on June 12th, 12 hours after the inmates were discovered missing, the intensive manhunt involving several law enforcement agencies including the Coast Guard and the Army had so far failed to locate the escapees either in the prison or hiding on Alcatraz Island.  And no trace of the men had been found either in the water or on the mainland.

On Wednesday, June 13th, the Assistant Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Fred T. Wilkinson, held a news conference without first consulting with the FBI.  Although he was instructed by the Attorney General’s Office not to withhold information or give the impression of trying to cover up the escape, the Assistant Director seemed eager to put this embarrassing incident behind him.  He informed the press, “Information so far leads me to believe definitely that these three men… made it off the island but never made it to shore.”

Mugshots of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers.
Mugshots of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers.

A reporter asked the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett, if he agreed with the assistant director’s assessment at the news conference the day before.  Bennett said that he believes the escapees had drowned in the frigid bay waters.  The reason he believes this is because they retrieved a bag of addresses in the bay and he doesn’t think the men would ditch the bag of address intentionally.

Up to this point, the FBI had maintained a no comment policy regarding the ongoing investigation.  But the Bureau of Prisons’ news conference the day before changed that.  Contrary to the Bureau of Prisons’ comments suggesting that the escapees never made it to the mainland, Special Agent in Charge Price emphasized that even though there was no evidence that indicated the fugitives made it to the mainland it was still an ongoing investigation.

HOW DID THEY ESCAPE?

The FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Frank L. Price, couldn’t help but be impressed by the inmates’ escape plan.  He described the year-long prep work by the men as fantastic.  The Mae West style life vests that the escapees had fashioned together showed great ingenuity in their preparation.  To make the life vests, they not only sewed the seams but also used a hot steam pipe to vulcanize the seams to make them airtight.  To inflate the life vests, the men used hollow plastic tubes like the ones used in spray bottles.  Then a heavy paperclip was used to close the tube after the life vest was inflated.  The escapees left behind a small raft which also showed the same ingenuity in its construction as did the life vest.

Did you know it’s illegal to kill a Sasquatch in this county?

After Monday night’s 9:30PM bed check, the inmates began to execute their escape plan.  Each inmate had removed a vent grill from the back wall of their cells and dug out of their cell.  Once in the unused utility corridor behind the cells, the three inmates shimmied up 30’ of pipes and then got onto the roof through another vent.

Once on the roof of the cellblock, the three men slid down drainpipes on the side of the building and made their way to the rocky shore which was about 100 yards away. 

A fourth inmate, John Allen, was supposed to escape with the other inmates but he had difficulty removing the vent grill from the back wall of his cell.  By the time he got through the cell wall and onto the roof, Morris and the Anglin Brothers had already left.  This can explain the reason authorities found the wooden paddle and Mae West life vest in the bay.  Since Allen wasn’t going they didn’t need the extra paddle and life vest so they tossed them into the bay as a red herring for law enforcement.

One of the biggest questions of the investigation, could the escapees make it to the mainland?

Once in the water, it was assumed that the three fugitives would head to Angel Island then cross Raccoon Strait into Marin County.  To get to Angel Island the escapees would have to paddle against a strong outgoing current.  The tide charts from that day reflect that from 9:00PM to 3:00AM strong prevailing tides flowed in a westerly direction from Alcatraz Island out past the Golden Gate Bridge to the ocean. 

To determine if swimming from Alcatraz Island to Angel Island was possible, the San Francisco Chronicle and KRON TV hired two expert Olympic swimmers to attempt the swim.   The swimmers made the swim between the islands in 53 minutes, although they had to be retrieved by a boat due to dangerous whirlpools and battering waves against the rocks.  What this proves is that it would be very difficult for an inexperienced swimmer not acclimated to the cold water to swim from Alcatraz to Angel Island but not entirely impossible.  But I don’t think they swam the distance.

For their escape, they built a 6’x14’ pontoon-style raft out of 50 raincoats.  This would keep them from having to actually swim in the frigid 55-degree waters and give them a better chance of reaching the mainland.  I think three men could paddle a raft, albeit with much difficulty, against the currents and reach Angels Island.

MY ESCAPE THEORIES

This wasn’t the first time that the three convicts had attempted to escape prison.  All three of them had tried to escape other prisons during their incarceration.  While Frank Morris was incarcerated in the Florida State Penitentiary, he tried unsuccessfully to escape at least three times.  He also attempted to escape from the Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana and the Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Anglin Brothers also had previous experience attempting to escape from prisons.  If anyone stood a chance to escape “The Rock” and make it to the mainland, it would be one of these three inmates.

While it was never proved that the men successfully reached the mainland, it was also never proved that the men had drowned.  I think what stands out about this case is not the evidence that was found but the evidence that was not found.  The only evidence that was found off Alcatraz Island was a paddle, a Mae West style life vest, a bag of addresses and a waterproof packet of letters.  No bodies were ever found.  I believe the paddle and life vest found in the bay were intended to be used by John Allen, a fourth convict that was going to escape that night but had problems opening the vent grill in his cell.  Since Allen didn’t go through with the escape, I believe the other men ditched the items in the bay as a red herring to throw law enforcement off their tracks. 

I also don’t believe the escapees headed for Angel Island to escape through Marin County.  One hundred armed soldiers and 35 military police with bloodhounds didn’t find any evidence that the escapees were on Angel Island.  No footprints, no raft, no life vests, no sign of the men.  I think the whole plan to escape through Angel Island was fabricated to throw the authorities off their trail.  The inmates had a year to plan the escape.  It’s possible that they leaked the Angel Island escape route to other prisoners so that when they were questioned they would tell the authorities about the Angel Island escape plan.  The FBI had one confidential informant at the prison who told them about the Angel Island escape route.  It is also possible that John Allen, the fourth inmate that was supposed to escape that night, told the authorities about the escape plan.  If I had a year to plan an escape, I would fabricate a plan that I could leak to prisoners.  So now that we have proven that the men didn’t go to Angel Island, we can consider other theories of how Morris and the Anglin Brothers could have escaped. 

THEORY #1: They escaped through the Harbor District. 

With the Harbor District being less than a mile away from Alcatraz, I am sure this scenario was at least considered by the inmates.  The inmates could have paddled their raft to the Harbor District and then got away in a waiting car.  It seems like this would be easier than paddling almost two miles to Angel Island against a strong current and an outgoing tide.  Although police units in the Harbor District were put on special alert, the inmates still had a 12-hour head start giving them plenty of time to get far away from Alcatraz and San Francisco.

THEORY #2: A boat picked them up. 

While I think they could have escaped through the Harbor District, I don’t think that is what happened. What I think happened is that they escaped Alcatraz Island on their raft and were picked up by a waiting boat.  I’m not the only one to suggest this escape scenario.  On June 21, 1962, someone (name redacted) sent the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, a letter describing this exact scenario.  The unknown writer said to facilitate such an escape a trusted prisoner with an early release could have contacted and relayed instructions to one of the approximately 50 relatives of the inmates that lived in the area.  With a full year of planning, I think it’s possible that they could have made arrangements to have a boat pick them up.

One credible witness may have spotted a boat picking up the escapees that night.  An off-duty San Francisco Policeman, Robert Checchi, was sitting in his car at Marina Green just before midnight on the night of the escape.  He recalled gazing out at the Bay when he noticed a “pristine white boat” acting strangely.  Checchi thought to himself that something was wrong because there were no lights on the boat.  A few minutes later a light came on.  Someone was shining a spotlight or flashlight into the water.  Could they have been searching for the escapees in the dark, cold waters of the San Francisco Bay?  Perhaps, but we’ll never know.

Without any new evidence it will never without a doubt be proven that Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers drowned in the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay or managed to make it to the mainland.  FBI Case# 76-26295 was officially closed on December 31, 1979, seventeen years after the escape from Alcatraz. Although not an active investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service continues to investigate in the unlikely event the three men are still alive.  The true fate of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers remains one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.

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