Crime History: Escape From Alcatraz — The True Story

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, John Anglin [FBI]

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — They used their heads and turned out to be no dummies.

After 36 inmates at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary had mounted 14 unsuccessful attempts since 1934 to break out of the “inescapable” island prison, a trio of bank robbers — Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence Anglin and John Anglin — managed to make it off “The Rock” on June 12, 1962.

Dummy heads used to escape from Alcatraz [FBI]

The dummies really did it, too. After digging holes in the back of their cells with sharpened spoons, Morris and the Anglins rendered papier mache versions of their heads out soap, toilet paper, smuggled paint, and human hair. They then propped up the likenesses inside their cots.

The false faces proved entirely passable. Night guards passed by repeatedly and believed them to simply be the inmates, soundly snoozing.

Once they crawled out of their cells, the trio slipped into the island prison’s ventilation system, and shimmied down to the shore.

Related: Alcatraz — Go Inside The Prison With Only One Successful Escape Attempt

From there, they hopped aboard a vessel made of a stolen rubber raft, driftwood, and 50 raincoats fashioned into pontoons that they used to sail across the icy, unforgiving undercurrents of San Francisco Bay. The city itself loomed just a mile-and-a-quarter off in the distance.

Frank Morris, escape mastermind [FBI]

Meanwhile, Allen West, a fourth prisoner in on the plan, couldn’t get out of his cell in time and ran late, missing his rendezvous with the others. Going back to bed that night must have been quite the drag for him.

All told, Morris and the Anglin brothers may well have made their way to freedom. Then again, they also could have drowned during the journey. Either way, no one ever again reported locating a single one of them — nor has anyone ever turned up any physical evidence to suggest the men died.

As you’d expect, a massive manhunt stormed the land, sea, and air surrounding Alcatraz immediately.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary [FBI]

Two days later, the Coast Guard found an oar while a work vessel turned up a wallet wrapped in plastic stuffed full of the names and addresses of Morris’s family members and associates.

Over the next week or so, investigators plucked bits of the raincoats and a stray life jacket out of the water, but, really, that was it. Somebody, at last, had escaped from Alcatraz.

The public has long been fascinated by Alcatraz itself in general, and its three runaway robbers in particular.

Related: Relatives Of Presumed-Dead Alcatraz Escapees Say They May Still Be Alive Today

In 1963, author J. Campbell Bruce published his popular true-crime account of the flight, Escape From Alcatraz.

Sixteen years later, Clint Eastwood starred as Frank Morris in the hit Escape From Alcatraz, the big-screen adaptation of Bruce’s book by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel. It remains one of both Hollywood giants’ most acclaimed films.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979), movie poster [promotional image]

TV crime shows have frequently revisited the breakout, as well. A 1993 episode of America’s Most Wanted interviewed Thomas Kent, a fellow inmate of the three escapees, who claimed Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend had met the men on San Francisco’s Angel Island beach and whisked them off to Mexico.

In 2003, the science-test series MythBusters attempted to re-create the original plan and deemed that the prisoners’ safe arrival to the shore was “plausible.”

Delft University researchers, using cutting-edge computer technology in 2013, backed up MythBusters’ conclusion, but qualified that the men would have had to have left at midnight to catch the right tide.

Related: Prison Break — Find Out How Thousands Of Inmates Escape Each Year

Most recently, in 2015, a pair of the Anglins’ nephews — David Anglin and Ken Widner — presented what they say were photographs and handwriting samples of their fugitive uncles alive and well in Brazil circa 1975. The nephews said Anglin family members sat on the material for so long due to “harassment” from the FBI. Upon examining the items, Art Roderick, the retired US marshal who lead the case for 20 years, stated:

This is absolutely the best actionable lead we’ve had…. When you work these types of cases, there’s a feeling you get when stuff starts to fall into place. I’m getting this feeling now.”

Still, nothing has come up since then.

Related: When Two Wolves Make It Over The Wall — Lt. Joe Kenda On The New York Prison Break

Regardless of all speculation, Frank Morris and the Anglins remain very much wanted by the FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service has kept the case open.

During an NPR interview about the case in 2009, Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke made it clear: “There’s an active warrant, and the U.S. Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.”

Read more:
FBI
BBC
History
New York Post
NPR

Main photos: Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, John Anglin [FBI]

  • Martha Bartha

    The Family says they made it!