Reopening The Case
Alcatraz was designed to keep the most dangerous of criminals far away from the public. It had top-notch security and seemed almost impossible to escape. But somehow, three notorious prisoners managed to get out.
Officials stated that the men had lost their lives in the icy water. But the FBI received a suspicious letter in 2013 that forced them to reopen the case. What really happened when the men escaped the high-security prison?
Frank Lee Morris
When he was just 11 years old, Frank Lee Morris became an orphan and entered the foster system. After this bright young mind was shuffled from foster home to foster home, he had to learn to be self-reliant.
At the tender age of 13, Frank fell in with the wrong crowd and was convicted for his first crime. Little did anyone know, he was the man who would become famous for orchestrating the great escape from Alcatraz.
From Prison To Prison
By the time Frank was a young man, he had already been arrested several times and had spent time in various prisons throughout the United States. Eventually, he wound up in the state penitentiary of Louisiana, also known as “Alcatraz of the South”.
After escaping, he managed to evade authorities for an entire year before he was finally caught. This time, they were taking no chances – the authorities sent him to the infamous maximum-security prison, Alcatraz. There, he met the Anglin brothers and Allen West.
Band Of Four
Frank Lee Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, and another convict named Allen West became as thick as thieves while they were serving time in Alcatraz.
Coincidentally, every man in the band of four had special skills – skills that they would need to pull off the greatest escape in American history. The four men pooled their knowledge to come up with a plan to escape, led by their cunning leader, Frank.
The four men came up with a simple plan, but the logistics seemed impossible. They would need to use all their resources and work together in perfect synch to pull it off.
But these four men weren’t the first convicts to try to escape from the impenetrable island prison. More than 30 men had tried to escape before, but their attempts were futile. Why would Frank’s plan be any different?
Putting The Plan Into Action
Luckily, the four men were housed in adjoining cells. They were able to plot and scheme together, and they had a long time to work out the finer details of their escape plan.
But first, they would need to gather the materials they needed. Fortunately for them, Alcatraz wasn’t just a prison – it was also a factory.
Getting The Materials
The inmates at Alcatraz worked as part of their sentence – Alcatraz was a factory in which the convicts would make furniture, clothing, and shoes for the U.S. Military.
The band of four had access to all kinds of materials that could be used to their advantage. And they also had another rare advantage that gave them the upper hand.
Right Under Their Noses
The four men were also all non-violent offenders – something extremely rare in Alcatraz. Because they were all serving time for crimes like robbery, this meant that they were under less scrutiny from the guards.
This gave them the perfect opportunity to operate right under the authorities’ noses. They began building the ingenious props that would be pivotal in their escape plan.
The men knew that it wasn’t enough to just get out of the fortress, they needed a plan to give them as much time as possible before the guards caught on.
Each team member was assigned different tasks that would all need to come together seamlessly for the plan to be a success. The Anglin brothers were responsible for making the dummy heads that would be left inside the cells.
The four dummy lookalike heads were carved from soap wax, toilet paper, and human hair that the Anglin brothers had collected from the Alcatraz barbershop.
Frank Morris’ job was to make a specialized instrument that resembled an accordion, and they all worked together to make the instruments to unscrew the bolts from the vents and tunnel out their cells. It was crazy, but would it work?
The men fashioned crude picks and wrenches from the materials they found around the prison. The items included spoons from the cafeteria and pieces of wood from the workshop.
Every day from 5:30 PM to 9:00 PM, the men worked relentlessly, discreetly chipping away at their cells and widening the holes so they could fit inside. But what was on the other side?
The Utility Corridor
As the holes in their cells widened, they could see the unguarded utility corridor on the other side. There were bars along the walls that the men could use to climb up three stories, to the wide shafts, and then onto the roof.
On that fateful evening in 1962, the men pried one of the shafts open with their homemade wrench, got onto the roof, and disappeared into the night. But they had left one man behind.
Facing The Cold Waters
They had to leave Allen West behind when he couldn’t widen his hole in time. The men had made life vests and a raft by gluing and stitching more than 50 raincoats together, and Frank’s accordion instrument was used to inflate the raft and the life vests.
After that day, Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin were never seen again. Because no car was reported stolen in or around Angel island, it was presumed that they had never reached the shore. Until now.
In 2013, the FBI was forced to reopen the case after the San Francisco Police Department received a shocking letter signed by a man claiming to be John Anglin. However, the letter’s contents weren’t disclosed to the public until 2018.
The letter begins: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped 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!”
Alive In California
The letter continued: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.”
“This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo, North Dakota until 2003. Living in Southern California now.” But that’s not the only claim out there. There was another escape attempt that ended in the prisoners considered missing. But did they ever make it out?
Theodore Cole And Ralph Roe
Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were partners in crime so naturally they became partners in prison too. The two were infamous bank robbers that eventually got caught and ended up in Alcatraz just like Frank Lee Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, and Allen West.
But who were they and how did their escape attempt differ from our previous escapees?
Both men lived in Oklahoma and became good friends before deciding to get into the life of crime. Not much is known about Theodore Cole or Ralph Roe before they started breaking the law.
The two started robbing banks in the mid 1930s and were eventually caught. But they didn’t go straight to Alcatraz.
Not Severe Enough
The two men had robbed many banks by the time they had been convicted but it seemed that the judge was relativley lenient, not booking them a boat straight to Alcatraz. You’d think the men would be grateful.
But the men would take their chances in their new prison and test the warden’s patience far beyond its limits.
The two men went to Oklahoma’s state penitentiary – McAlester Prison. The prison seemed suitable for what they had done but soon the judge would be proved wrong. The men would try their luck to get out.
But their attempt ended in them getting caught, their first escape attempt. But nobody knew they’d try again.
The Road To Alcatraz
After their first escape attempt the men were sent to a high-security facility Leavenworth Prison. There they were listed as escape risks and were only held there temporarily. It seemed the judge and the state had better ideas for them.
They would be sent to the infamous “escape-proof” prison – Alcatraz.
Ralph Roe was originally caught by police after a shootout in 1933. This resulted in his partner – Wilbur Underhill passing away. This was the first time he was caught by the police. Records are not clear how Roe got out and started robbing banks with Cole.
But it seems Cole’s punishment for getting caught would be far more severe.
Not much is known about Theodore Cole before he was convicted other than that he was born in April 1899. He is only famous for his escape attempt with Ralph Roe.
But after being convicted Theodore got a dooming sentence which explains why he was desperate to escape – a death sentence.
The Escape Attempt
The two men had planned the escape months in advance.and used their unique jobs to orchestrate the plan. They worked stripping old tires into rubber matts. The men spent months in the workshop grinding down the window bars and hiding the damage with tire grease.
But how did they leave the island once the plan was in motion?
Plans In Motion
Cole and Roe disappeared between the 1:00AM and 1:30AM headcount when the night was pitch black and the fog around Alcatraz was at its thickest. The men broke the bars they had weakened for weeks and dropped down to the beach below.
But it was there that their trail went cold.
Escaped Or Disappeared?
The tracks on the beach disappear and officials assume the men used makeshift floats made out of tires to swim off the island. The problem was that the current could easily have swept them into sea. But over the years there have been many eyewitness accounts of the men being sighted.
So that begs the question – did the men make it off the island alive or did the current sweep them to sea? No one can be sure until more evidence shows up.