Reflecting Through Echoes

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

PART 7 – Discovery

P. 219. Holding up his fake grill and beating it with his fist, he said, “You may as well lock me up too. I planned the entire escape!”

By seven o’clock in the morning, West had his story ready to go. By the time the guards did the morning count and couldn’t arouse Clarence Anglin, the sh*t more or less hit the fan. The guards quickly found THREE empty cells. And here was Allen West, banging on his fake grill rubbing their noses in it, it being the biggest prison breakout in modern history. By 7:15 the escape siren was blaring. I wonder if the mood with the prisoners was one of triumphant? I’d kinda like to think so. Maybe other convicts hated Morris and the Anglins but maybe they felt some sort of pride in them as well. Pride in the fact that some of their fellow cellmates stuck it to the man and escaped.

I think that the fifteen minute delay from seven to seven-fifteen (when the siren was finally turned on) was due to the guards discovery of a plethora of evidence that this was no ordinary incident; artifacts such as a periscope, glue, paint cans, raincoats and a life jacket! I would have loved to see their faces. A day later someone pried open a can of paint and discovered the small electric motor used as a drill.

P. 224. Officers went about their search quietly, but their silence spoke volumes.

They knew that someone was going to pay for this and unfortunately it looked like everybody was complacent at least on some level. They had to feel guilty about it.

P. 224. But the most damning evidence was the least discussed: the scores of blankets that hung around the top of the block.

Jolene writes that their was almost a slight cover-up about this part of the escape. If it wasn’t for two FBI photos that noted what they are, they would have practically vanished. All reports from the guards and lieutenants on duty (about the escape) neglected to mention those damn blankets. Heads were going to roll.

P. 225. His [West] story, even after repeated tellings, remained mostly consistent.

West is described here as shaking and bubbling with energy. He was proud of what he helped put together. There was no doubt that he was depressed that he was left behind but going through all the detailing of their planning must have a been a reward onto itself.

P. 228. That night, June 12, at 10:15 pm., a homemade paddle matching the one found on top of the roof, was found floating off the northwest side of Angel Island.

Since this was near the intended target of Morris and the Anglins, the FBI initially suspected that they had made it to land.

P. 228. Two days later, on Thursday, June 14, the double-wrapped bags made of raincoat material was plucked out of water halfway between Alcatraz and Angel Island by the U.S. Corp of Engineer debris boat, Coyote.

I think this is where the story begins to change, from a successful escape attempt to a watery grave for the three. That bag contained precious photographs and as well as contacts of people who might have helped them. They wouldn’t have let go of that unless things were going horrible wrong. Unless…they wanted it to be found so people would assume they were dead.

P. 229. The raft was never found. In fact, no physical evidence, directly linked to the three men, ever surfaced on land or sea again.

There were plenty of sightings of the men of course but it produced no definitive proof. A postcard was mailed from Brazil (I think) saying that they had made it but officials determined that it was a hoax. Like so many times in famous cases, hoaxers love to send items to the police or newspapers. They do nothing but add a little more fuel to the fire.

P. 232. On June 20, BOP Assistant Director Wilkinson, speculated for reporters that the raft may have sunk, and if it did, “I’d know who’d go overboard first.” …This was the origin of the rumors that continue until today, that the Anglins killed Morris and escaped without him.

Who knows for sure, it’s entirely possible that if a raft was sinking one might try to lighten the load by forcing a man off. Hopefully they all were wearing their life-vests but if they weren’t they might not had enough time to put them on. Depending on how quickly the raft sank as well, they might not have had time to try and gang up on Morris. Fighting would only have made the situation worse.

P. 233. More than a month after the attempt, On July 17, 1962, a Norwegian ship named the S.S. Norefjell,…about twenty miles west-northwest beyond the Golden Gate Bridge…saw a body floating in the ocean.

Interesting. The body could have been one of the three that escaped. It also could have been one of the many suicides that jump for the Golden Gate Bridge every year. We won’t ever know because the S.S. Norefjell did not attempt to reclaim the body. If they had it could have ended the mystery right there. Instead they left the body floating and reported it days later. The body would have been unrecognizable anyway but with the proper forensic equipment they could have deduces who it belonged to.

Throughout the rest of the sixties, sightings were reported all over the globe. Just like with Elvis’s death, people saw them everywhere. Not in any hugh numbers like Elvis but similar.

P. 234. In 1979, Clint Eastwood’s “Escape From Alcatraz” was released.

My next post will feature a review of the film and detail the inaccuracies between what’s on screen and what really happened.

P. 235. The fact that no bodies were ever retrieved from San Francisco Bay is not significant.

Jolene tells that during 1960 and 1961 there were around forty-seven suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge.

P. 235. Five hit land and their bodies were recovered. Of the other forty-two, seventeen were recovered and twenty-five were not.

Let me repeat that to make sure it syncs in,an amazing twenty-five out of forty-seven bodies were unable to be found.

P. 235. On June 11, 1962, the same day the three Alcatraz cons went missing, witnesses observed thirty-three year old Seymour Webb jump form the Golden Gate Bridge. In their search for Morris and the Anglins, the coast guard also never found Webb.

P. 235. The fact that no evidence was found on land, is more significant.

I would think that if they did make it to shore, they would be extremely cold and hungry. Yet there were no reports of any stolen cars or break-ins immediately following their escape. Those types of actions would leave a perfect trail for the police to follow. The simple fact is that they had no money and no resources. If they did make it, how could they have just disappeared?

P. 238. In other words, Morris and the Anglins entered the bay at exactly the worst moment of that twenty-four hour period, when the biggest volume of water was going out to the ocean at the fastest velocity…

Jolene makes the point that these guys pushed off in their raft when the currents would have been at the harshest of the day. Paddling to Angel Island or to the mainland would already have been exhausting, now add in faster currents just below them.  One can theorize that if they were paddling towards Angel Island and the currents heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge in the opposite direction, they could have paddle for hours and not made any actual progress. It would have been better to use the currents to let it take you to just below the Golden Gate Bridge. On one of the episodes of the “Mythbusters”, this is exactly what the hosts did. They quickly came to the conclusion that trying for Angel Island, although closer, was just too difficult a job to reach. So they used the currents to do half the work for them. They proved that paddling in a handmade raft carrying three people across the bay was possible but only if they used the currents. Allen West has always stated that Angel Island was the intended target, if that’s the case then that may explain why the three were lost and never seen again.

P. 239. Based on the evidence, the most likely scenario goes something like this: somewhere, maybe even close to the island, the raft begins to sink. It is unknown if the three men had their shoes on, but if they did, their shoes would have immediately filled with water and pulled them down. It’s unknown if they were wearing their navy pier coats, but if they were, the woolen jackets would have quickly become lead weights. It’s also unknown if they were forced to quickly put on their life jackets, fumbling to inflate them while thrashing around in extremely cold water, all while drifting in an direction that lead them to the ocean.

It is known that once they were bobbing around in water that was between forty-eight and fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, that they could last only one to two hours before losing consciousness. The cold would have an immediate numbing effect. Interestingly, thrashing around trying to build up body heat, a natural inclination, would have had the opposite effect of expending heat.

In the immediate aftermath of the escape it was announced that Alcatraz would close. It was simply too costly to operate. With the latest escape attempt it only highlighted the budget cutbacks that were being forced upon them. It all resulted in fewer guards, fewer shifts and somewhat relaxed rules.

P. 244. No one was faulted or punished for allowing blankets to be hung around the top of the block for almost six weeks.  Since the blankets were never revealed in official reports, no one could be blamed.

I guess it was hard to single any one individual since they were all an accomplices in this. They simply saw the blankets hanging their and ignored them. Embarrassing for sure but they should not have been left out of the official report. After all they were a key ingredient to the escape.

Glenn May died under mysterious circumstances. Some of the evidence in the escape pointed directly at him, electric drill for example. West never ratted him out but if must have been obvious to the guards. Many think that prison guards took out their embarrassment on poor Glenn May. Nothing could really be proofed one one way or another though. Basically Glenn died a year later, due to anorexia nervosa, at the age of forty-four. I have no idea how common it is for a forty year old man to suddenly develop anorexia but apparently that was the case. Did the guards have anything to do with that? Seems like an unusual form of torture if that was the case but I doubt the guards had anything to do with it. They were being sent packing along with the inmates with the closing of the prison. At most they could have made Glenn feel guilty by constantly arousing suspicion on him.

P. 250. Few believed that West couldn’t get out of his cell that night.

Most officials and even the warden branded him a coward. They reckoned that he simply chickened out. That underneath all that posturing was a scared individual. Those feelings about West continued to be passed down throughout the years. So nearly fifteen years later, when Hollywood had a desire to tell the story of escape they turned West into a joke. They renamed his character Charlie Butts and portrayed him as a idiot who was just a follower.

Here we are, thirty-two years after that film, “Escape From Alcatraz” had come out. Nearly forty-nine years after the escape attempt itself. With new books like Jolene’s, “Breaking the Rock”, shows like “Mythbusters” and “The Real Story”, the story of these four men continues to live on. It is rumored that J.J. (mystery box) Abrams is even currently developing a prime time tv show about these men who escaped. I can not wait for that.

As the years roll on and more and more information about the escape attempt becomes more well known, I believe Allen West may have the last laugh. He helped plan and execute it, yet he was the only one to survive. He had bragging rights for the rest of his life. And it was a brilliant plan.

P. 251. He had broken the rock.



Written by Mr. Lake

March 23, 2011 at 8:05 am

The Plan

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

P. 62.  It’s not clear who thought of making dummy masks for the beds, but it is obvious that once West decided that they would escape from their cells, dummy masks would have to be made to conceal their escape.

West told the group about the ’39 prison escape. Where five cons sawed through their prison bars, escaped and jumped down the cliff. The problem with that plan was that the guards quickly saw empty cells. West would not make the same mistake.

P. 64. I read a book once, ’bout how you can melt concrete be heating it to nine hundred degrees. -West

A side story involving a convict named Glenn May. Glenn was arrested for larceny, writing bad checks, forgery, etc and was sent to Alcatraz for trying to escape from Leavenworth Prison. He became the inmate electrician, often repairing items used in the kitchen; toasters, ovens, and dishwashers. West got the idea to try and heat up the concrete to his cell by shocking it thus allowing him an easier time to dig holes in it. Glenn built a device which was basically a toaster and worked by powering it through the ceiling light. West tried and tried however but nothing ever came of it. After the escape Glenn would later pay dearly for helping West in this way.

P. 66. Instead of the old ten-man dining tables in use since the army days, now there were four-man tables.

P. 67. But right away he [West] knew that this was going to be an advantage: three times a day, he could sit with his buddies. Three times a day, they could plot out ideas and nobody – nobody – could hear them.

The switch from ten-man tables to four-man tables was supposed to be a modernization of the prison system which began after Kennedy was elected President. The reality was that now these cons were allowed to freely plan their escape without others overhearing or guards interfering. This simple fact, that they had no control over, probably allowed the plan to speed up and take shape faster than it would normally have. Who knows maybe it never would have happened without this modernization? It also was harder for the guards to keep everything in order. Utensils began disappearing with some regularity.

P. 68. Three months after West had arrived in 1958, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson had tried to escape in the twelfth attempt in the prison’s history. They made plywood fins as paddles and “water wings” out of raincoats.

This was new to me. I had always thought that the idea to make a raft out of raincoats was a genuine idea of the group. Very surpassing to read that others had already tried it. Granted it was a shoddy attempt and making a grown human float with raincoats but still. I am impressed with the creativity of it. In case you were wondering, Aaron and Clyde escaped by overpowering a guard and jumping into the sea. Johnson began to struggle almost immediately in the water and turned back. Aaron however continued on. With his heavy clothes and shoes dragging him down he fought hard to stay afloat but eventually drowned.

West and the rest of the escapees wanted to actually build a raft out of raincoats, not just a “water wing”. At the time there was talk of building it to seat six, more convicts wanted to join in but eventually they wanted out and the group was reduced to the four that I have been focusing on: West, Morris and the Anglin Brothers. On season two, episode eight of “Mythbusters”, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman  build a raft out of raincoats to the specifications that the FBI says the cons had. Something like 50 to 60 raincoats! But amazingly, it did work and proved that technically it WAS possible. But i’m jumping ahead.

P. 68. Alcatraz “cuisine” was considered the best in the federal prison system. None of those sliced cold cuts, a staple in other pens that cons called “Donkey Dick.”

It’s the little details like this that I just love finding out about. Grilled beef and pork sausage, baked swiss steak, and other fine meals. Not to shabby.

P. 68. “We ate like a first class hotel there”…

P. 70. Cons called him, “the wop with the mop.”

Another quick side story, The wop with the mop was none other than Al Capone. The guards routinely gave the big time mobsters and gangsters the lowly and demeaning jobs in order to humiliate them. I bet it did have the desired effect, Al Capone the man who practically owned Chicago and been reduced to pushing a mop around a prison cell. Quite the fall from power.

P. 73. The clothing room was a freeway for contraband.

John (J-Dub) Anglin worked in the clothing room. It was an easy job and was basically for unskilled workers, like John. Every other week every con got a shower and a fresh set of clothes. First off, eeesh. Two weeks for a shower. It appears that John had easy access to supplies like toilet paper, soap, shoes, belts, and raincoats.

P. 84. West was excited by the simplicity of it.

I have to say, I’ve been impressed the most with John Anglin. For having only a third grade education, he’s probably had the best ideas. First it was to make a raft now it is for coming up with using spoons to dig their way out of prison. Stealing spoons was an extremely easy way to get a homemade tool. If it was confiscated the guards would just think it was a shank. They would break off the bowl part of the spoon and use the edge like an ice pick. Another benefit was it was also easy to hide. Not to be too cliche but perhaps in a book or inside a mattress.

P. 86. Most officers wore what cons called “sneak shoes,” made with crepe soles.

Due recall that by now the men had cells next to each other. One was on lookout for the guard while another did the digging in his cell. They would work during the music hour where it was so noisy that you could practically run a jack hammer and not have the guard hear it. The only bit of trouble they had was when the guard did his head count, hence the lookout.

P. 86. Although Hollywood films and numerous television documentaries showed cons chipping away at one big hole, in fact, each dug only one tiny hole at a time, about the length and size of your little finger.

To quote a famous Vulcan, “fascinating”. This just makes so much sense. Carve out a small hole, then use some wet toilet paper to fill in the hole, paint over. Repeat process till free. Ingenious.

P. 93. The one thing he hadn’t counted on.

Allen West almost gets caught. One night while digging he notices a black con looking through his own vent watching West. For a few tense moments at least, I bet West wishes he hadn’t acted like such a racist around his fellow inmates. Whew! End of part 2. Jolene leaves us (the reader) hanging, until the next chapter to find out why the black con DID NOT rat out West for payback.

Written by Mr. Lake

February 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm