Federal agents, state and local police officers, Coast Guard boats and military helicopters joined the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, scouring the prison complex on Alcatraz Island searching for three men who allegedly escaped.
Fifty years ago, on the night of June 11, 1962, the three convicts were locked down as usual. Guards walking the tier outside their cells saw them at 9:30 and checked on them periodically all night, looking in at the sleeping faces, hearing nothing strange. But by morning, the inmates had vanished, Houdini-like.
Guards found pillows under the bedclothes and lifelike papier-mâché heads with real hair and closed, painted eyes. Federal agents, state and local police officers, Coast Guard boats and military helicopters joined the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, scouring the prison complex on Alcatraz Island, the expanse of San Francisco Bay and the surrounding landscape of Northern California.
A crude raft made of rubber raincoats was found on a nearby island. But the fugitives were never seen again. Federal officials said they almost certainly drowned in the maelstrom of riptides, undertows and turbulent, frigid waters of the 10-mile-wide bay, their bodies probably swept out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge.
But for aficionados of unsolved mysteries, the fantasy that Frank Lee Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin had successfully escaped from the nation’s most forbidding maximum security prison and are still alive, hiding somewhere, has been a tantalizing if remote possibility for a half-century now.
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In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, no one is known to have made it out alive. Forty-one inmates tried.
Had they survived, the three men — all bank robbers serving long terms — would be in their 80s now. And while their names are all but forgotten, their breakout has been a subject of fascination to many.
Federal officials said Morris had an IQ of 133, surpassing 98 percent of the population. Born on Sept. 1, 1926, in Washington, he was orphaned at 11, sent into foster homes, convicted of theft at 13 and landed in reform school.
He graduated to robbery and narcotics, was jailed in Florida and Georgia, and while serving 10 years for bank robbery escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Then, captured in a burglary, he was sent to Alcatraz in 1960 for 14 years.
The Anglins were born in Donalsonville, Ga., John on May 2, 1930, and Clarence on May 11, 1931, two of 14 children of impoverished farmers, Robert and Rachel Anglin. The two brothers became inept burglars and were imprisoned in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where they tried to escape repeatedly. Seized after a 1958 Alabama bank holdup, they were sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., and later to Alcatraz.
Housed on a tier near one another, Morris and the Anglins began planning the escape in late 1961. The plan took months to prepare and required daring, ingenuity, careful timing and bonds of trust. The authorities said some of the men may have known one another at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
With spoons from a mess hall and a drill improvised from a vacuum cleaner, they dug through thick concrete walls, enlarging small, grille-covered air vents to squeeze through into the utility corridor. The work was concealed with cardboard and paint, and the noise by Morris’ evening accordion playing.
On the night of the escape, only one thing went wrong: Allen West, a fourth inmate who had planned to join them, had trouble opening the vent at the back of his cell — he had used cement to shore up crumbling concrete and it had hardened — and was left behind. He later gave investigators many details of the escape.
The next day, searchers found remnants of the raincoat raft and paddles on Angel Island, two miles north of Alcatraz and just a mile from the Tiburon headlands of Marin County, north of San Francisco.
They also found a plastic bag containing personal effects of the Anglins, including a money-order receipt and names, addresses and photos of friends and relatives. Emphasizing their belief that the escapees had drowned, officials said there had been no nearby robberies or car thefts on the night of the escape.
Alcatraz, an aging, 12-acre prison whose crumbling concrete and deteriorated plumbing had grown increasingly expensive to maintain, was closed in 1963 and later became a tourist attraction.
Morris and the Anglin brothers were officially declared dead in 1979, when the FBI closed its books on the case. But it was reopened by the U.S. Marshal’s Service in 1993 after a former Alcatraz inmate, Thomas Kent, told Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” that he had helped plan the breakout but had backed out because he could not swim.
Kent said Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend had agreed to meet them on shore and drive them to Mexico. Officials were skeptical because Kent had been paid $2,000 for the interview. Nevertheless, Dave Branham, a marshal’s service spokesman, said, “We think there is a possibility they are alive.”
The 2011 National Geographic program disclosed that footprints leading away from the raft had been found on Angel Island, and that contrary to official denials, a car had been stolen nearby on the night of the escape.