The Incredible Alcatraz Prison Break

The Incredible Alcatraz Prison Break


– [Ryan] This week on Buzzfeed Unsolved, we cover the thrilling escape from the famed Alcatraz Prison. The inmates who pulled this off did so by executing an
ingenious and daring plan. And who doesn’t love a
good prison break, right? – I do. Will there be tunnels? – You could say there was a tunnel. I guess if you were sitting
in a cell for a long time you would be able to come up with pretty cool things to escape. – Yeah. – That being said, the things
that they did come up with, I was impressed by. – Yeah. – But I’m easily impressed. – Well I guess tell your story. – [Ryan] Formerly a military base, Alcatraz Island opened as a federal maximum security prison in 1934. The prison was nicknamed The Rock, due to the fact that the prison sits on a 22 acre island about
a mile-and-a-quarter away from the city of San Francisco. Because of this, the
prison gained a reputation as being inescapable, with
water surrounding the prison hovering around 48 degrees fahrenheit to 54 degrees fahrenheit all year, along with formidable currents pulling strongly out to sea
leading up to low tide. – San Francisco is very cold. – It’s very cold. And I have very delicate
Southern California skin. – “The coldest winter of my life “was a summer in San Francisco.” – Okay. I thought you were gonna
go into your typical Midwestern people know winter and cold. – Midwestern people do know. I’ll tell you.
– Oh, Jesus Christ. – I’ll tell you. – It’s fine, we don’t have to go into it. – We know snow. – I’m very happy for you, what
a feather in all your caps. So shall we move on? – If you must. – Great. As time went on, the prison
would fall into disrepair, and the budget to fix things was limited. This would become an important factor in the inmates’ escape. So without further ado,
let’s meet the escape crew. First up, we have the Anglin Brothers, John William Anglin and his
younger brother Clarence Anglin, both in their early 30s
at the time of the escape. The brothers were serving time
for robbing a bank together. – [Shane] I wouldn’t mind being
in a jail cell with my bro. – [Ryan] Yeah, the thing is, like, being in prison, obviously not ideal. – [Shane] Yeah. – [Ryan] But you got
your bro there with you. – [Shane] You got your bro! – [Ryan] And they actually
were next door to each other. – [Shane] That’s very fun. – [Ryan] That’s very fun. – Yeah. – That’s a big bonding moment. – I wonder if one of them
got the letter, like, ooh, where are you going? And the other one was like,
I’m going to Alcatraz. And he was like, me too! – And they just jump up and down. Like they got accepted
to college together. Next we have Frank Morris, in his mid-30s at the time of the escape, who had been abandoned as a young child, put in foster care and run away, and was then in and out of prisons since he was just 13 years old. He was also serving
time for a bank robbery. The final member of
the crew is Allen West, age 33 at the time of the escape. West began serving time by the age of 14 and bounced around
various federal prisons. Our crew of escapees established, let’s jump into the
inception of the escape. It’s said that West
first approached Morris with a plan to escape in early 1960. West apparently knew of
a ventilator cover above Cell Block B that might not
be sealed over with concrete, as some of the other vents had been. If true, this could provide them with a way to get onto the roof of the prison from the inside. West also began working
with the cell house maintenance crew, which gave him insight into the building’s structure,
layout, and weaknesses. By September 1961, the Anglin Brothers, Morris, and West all had requested moves to cells that were close to
each other in Cell Block B, directly under the unsecured vent cover. All cell moves were approved. – [Shane] This goes back to my thinking that prison, maybe back then or maybe in this particular prison,
didn’t seem so bad. You just put in a request? And they’re like, oh you wanna move? You wanna be with your pals? Yeah, sure. – I mean, the thought is like – They should’ve just asked to leave. – I think this is maybe a lesson in humility for this prison, the prison guards and the prison warden. – Yeah. – Obviously this prison
has been thought of as this fortress of security. It’s thought of as inescapable. It’s surrounded by water. – Oh, so there’s an
element of hubris here. – What’s the worst they’re gonna do? Do what you want. It doesn’t matter because
you’re never gonna escape here. In terms of who planned what,
the details are a bit murky. But one thing is for sure. The plan that the four men would execute was undoubtedly bold and ingenious. That being said, let’s
break down the plan, starting with phase one, deception. With Alcatraz, it wasn’t just about escaping the prison walls, as it was also about making
it back to the mainland and avoiding capture in that process. In order to prevent that, the men knew they needed a head start. To accomplish this, the men created painted dummy heads
made from a plaster-like mix of soap, concrete,
and other materials. And complete with human hair. They laid the heads in their
beds to fool the guards. Sure enough, on June 12, on the morning following the escape, when the 7:00 AM bell went
off to wake the prisoners, guards discovered that the escapees appeared to still be asleep in their beds. It wasn’t until one guard reached into Morris’ cell and pushed the head, only for it to roll away
and strike the ground, that the guards realized
something was was wrong. To this day, the dummy
head that struck the ground still has the damage that
resulted from this fall. It’s unknown who came up with the idea to create dummy heads. However, Clarence worked as a barber and had access to human hair trimmings. Either way, phase one
deception as a success. – If I were that guard and
I reached into that bed, oh, wake up sir, you’re missing. You know, his head rolls out. First I’d scream, I’d go, ah! – I don’t know my own strength,
I just decapitated a man. – And then I’d just stand there and go They did it! – Very good. – Very good.
– Very good. – I would be angry if the
craftsmanship weren’t so good. – It’s very good. – But if I pick it up
and I see the human hair, I’m thinking, well, they really pulled out all the stops here. I am not a fool. – [Ryan] This brings us
to phase two, breakout. After laying the dummies in their beds, the men went to work on
busting out of their cells. All four of the men’s cells had five inch by nine-and-a-half
inch ventilation grates in the back of their cells. Perhaps due to his time on maintenance, West may have known that the
wall surrounding the grate was less than six inches thick, making it possible for each man to expand the hole in
their cell to fit through. For months, each of the escapees had drilled small, closely-spaced holes around the cover of
the ventilation grates. For this, they used crude handmade tools, like spoons stolen from the kitchen and a drill made from
a vacuum cleaner motor. These holes made it possible for them to remove the entire small section of the wall around the air vents, which they then kept covered up with their musical instruments and with fake covers made of cardboard. I’m also not that handy, so retrofitting, you know, a vacuum motor,
turning it into a drill, I don’t know if I’d be
able to think of that. – I don’t know, I don’t know. So they’re essentially
just perforating it. – Yeah, they’re just, they’re priming it by making little holes, making the wall a little bit weaker so that they could just
push through this wall. – And this is out of view of the guards? – So it’s not out of view, but this prison allowed an hour called, I
think it was called happy hour, where the inmates would – Everybody gets margaritas? – No one gets margaritas. But the inmates who
played musical instruments were allowed to play their
instruments during this hour. – What is this prison? Everybody talks, ooh, The Rock, you don’t wanna go to The Rock. – That’s true. – Oh, the happy hour at The
Rock is only three times a day. – It sounds like the
prison from Paddington II. – Don’t forget your loot. – Yeah, under the cover of
all this shitty music playing, they were probably able
to do some drilling. These holes allowed them to crawl through to a utility corridor located
directly behind their cells that was typically left unguarded. From there, they were able to climb up to a hidden landing area
directly above their cell block, where they had been working
in secret for several months. Some or all of the escapees had been given permission, at some point, to do maintenance work
on this landing area. In fact, to this day, you can still see where West actually completed
part of the painting job. Apparently, West had
even convinced the guards to allow him to hang blankets
that concealed his work, because it was sending dust cascading down to the ground level. In reality, he was actually using blankets to hide the work that was
really being done up there. This concealed landing area became the escapees’ secret workshop. They even built and used a primitive periscope to take turns as lookout. In the workshop, they were able to build the aforementioned dummies, tools, and other items they’d used to escape. It’s worth noting that, on
the night of the escape, West never made it to this landing spot, due to the fact that he
was unable to break through the last portion of the wall
around his ventilation grate. Consequently, West was left behind. From the landing, the ceiling was about 30 feet directly overhead, and the men were able
to climb to the ceiling via the pipes and reach an air vent that they had previously pried off in preparation for their escape. Experts believe that a sound reportedly heard around 10:30 PM was
the sound of the air vent cover being pushed off on the roof. And this marks the approximate time the escapees would have reached the roof. They then climbed down from the roof via a pipe next to the
back of their cell block, climbed the 15-foot
fence, and made their way to the north shore of the island. Which brings us to the next phase, phase three, escaping the island. In their workshop, the inmates
had built life preservers and a six-by-14 foot rubber raft, all made from prison issue raincoats. They’d gathered over 50
raincoats for the job, possibly stitching them together using sewing machines in
the clothing or glove shops. They even vulcanized the rubber raincoats by holding the seams up to
the heat from the steam pipes, an idea they’d gotten from
a popular Mechanics’ issue. The raft was inflated using a
converted musical instrument, a concertina ordered by
Morris back in April. – Do you think every day for 50 days they just kept going,
lost my raincoat again. – I mean there was a lot – 49th time in a row, can you believe it? – There was a lot of raincoats. – I guess, yeah. – And I guess they weren’t
keeping inventory of them. I’m guessing that they got a
fair amount of poop on them, they were like, all right,
throw that in the trash, and they were just
walking by, taking them. Oh, I guess in the workshop. – You know what I find
with government employees, they’re always thrilled
to waste the money. You know, they’re like, hey, that’s on the government’s dime. So if you’re a prisoner and
you’re like, I lost a raincoat, they’re probably like, yeah, hey, have more, I don’t care, it’s not mine. That’s coming from
Uncle Sam’s pocket, pal. – You’re not taking from the guard’s personal stash of raincoats. But 50 does seem like an
inordinate amount to gather. – Wow, they vulcanized them. On a steamy, the steamy pipes! – Off a popular Mechanics’ issue. – I love it. – [Ryan] The plan was to
sail across San Francisco Bay in their raft to Angel Island, about two miles north of Alcatraz Island. From there, they would sail again, this time across Raccoon
Strait, about a half-mile wide, which would then bring
them to the mainland. There, they would steal a car as well as clothing, according to West, who would later inform the FBI about a good deal of the plan. Once the men were discovered missing, Alcatraz went into
lockdown as a search began. Guards quickly found the secret workshop, the hole in the ceiling,
and footprints on the roof and at the bottom of the
pipe they climbed down. The FBI joined the case,
as would the Coastguard and Bureau of Prison Authorities, in what would be a wide-scale search. However, the escapees,
as well as their raft, were never seen again. Even though we know the three men made it off of Alcatraz Island, what happened to the three men
after that remains a mystery. That being said, let’s
get into the theories, of which there are only two. That the men escaped and survived, or that they perished in the
journey over to the mainland. Let’s start with the latter. The Bay’s waters are
known for being frigid, and there is a strong current that could’ve worked against the escapees. Experts point out that the trio’s goal of taking the raft north to Angel Island would have been extremely
difficult at this time, especially given that they
had paddles but no rudder. Additionally, results of a
reenactment of the escape carried out by Dutch
scientists in a piece for PBS, in which they built a raft similar to the one the escapees used, found that two of the men would have to work to keep the raft inflated, leaving only one to paddle. The weather would’ve been
about 47 degrees fahrenheit when the men made it outside the prison. The water is said to have
been 54 degrees fahrenheit. If the raft had sunk or the men had gone overboard into the water, they would probably have
only lasted two hours before starting to lose consciousness, according to author Jolene Babyak. – [Shane] I tell you what, you ever looked out into
the waters in that bay? – [Ryan] I’ve looked out
to the waters at night, at the ocean, it’s scary. – [Shane] But that bay in particular, I don’t like the look of it. – [Ryan] The ocean is
scary in the daytime. – [Shane] It’s scary enough, but that bay? Scarier than the ocean. – [Ryan] I can’t speak to that. – [Shane] It’s rocky and it’s cold. – The only time I’ve
ever looked at that bay has been in a very fun context. I was watching a group of
seals fight each other. – Oh, that’s fun. – It was really fun, they
were slapping each other away and one of them fell off. – But imagine that, if
you’re trying to escape and a seal hops up on your
boat and starts slapping you. – Yeah! – That’s not ideal. – I don’t think that’s
ideal, it’d be cute, but it’d be like, come
on man, gotta escape, very funny, meet you back on the shore, we’ll do this again some time. On June 12th, bits of wood
resembling a handmade paddle were found in the water near Angel Island. The pieces were identified
as belonging to the escapees. On June 14th, bags made from raincoats were found halfway between
Alcatraz and Angel Island. These bags contained irrefutable evidence that they had belonged to the escapees, photos of the Anglins and their family, nine pieces of paper with a list of people to contact on the outside, and a letter written to Clarence Anglin. Many point to these personal items as evidence that the
journey was ill-fated, as these would have not
been items easily given up. On June 15th, a homemade life vest was found floating near Cronkite Beach. A second life vest was discovered on June 22nd no more than 100 yards from the eastern coast of Alcatraz Island. Its ties were still knotted. All three of the men would have set out with very little money, so the fact that the hordes of authorities on the case never found a shred of evidence of any thefts or holdups
tied to Morris or the Anglins for food, clothing, or transportation made it seem unlikely that they made it to the mainland alive. The FBI states that they never
found any credible evidence, either in the U.S. or
abroad, that the men lived. In mid July 1962, about
six weeks after the escape, a Norwegian shipping
freighter, the S.S. Norefjell, spotted a body in the ocean about 20 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. However, they did not call in the sighting and did not report it until fall, when they returned to San Francisco, and the body was never recovered. – Look, it’s a dead guy. – Oh well. – I guess if it’s a freighter, I mean, one, you should report it, but if it’s a freighter, I can’t imagine they can really stop. Also, you know, time is money. – Sure, I get not stopping. But a little phone call. – Call it in. – Like hey, I think I saw a dead body. And because the body was never recovered, we can’t tell if it’s
one of these three men. – Yeah. – So, you know, shit
happens in the sea I guess. Though, there is plenty of credence to our second theory, that
the escapees survived. Morris and the Anglin Brothers had a raft to help them
navigate the waters, which many people have successfully
been able to swim before without the benefit of
a raft or life jackets. A triathlon is held each year in which participants complete a mile-and-a-half swim in the same waters around the same time of year
that the escape occurred. Participants do say that the current, choppy waters, and wind are
major factors to contend with. But according to Jeff Harp, a security analyst for CBS San Francisco who worked with the FBI for over 20 years and goes for swims in
the San Francisco Bay, he doesn’t know of any contestants in the triathlon who haven’t
been able to complete the swim. Furthermore, most of the bodies of those who drown in the Bay
will float after a few days, but despite extensive searches, the fugitives’ bodies were never found. U.S. Marshal Michael
Dyke has run a simulation with help from the
Coastguard that determined the escapees could’ve
survived in the water for two-and-a-half hours at
least if the raft plan failed. The same Dutch scientists who
carried out the reenactment of the escape also
created a computer model, which they presented in
2014, that could recreate the conditions in the water
on the night of the escape. The model found that there
was a very narrow window between 11:30 PM and midnight during which the trio would have needed
to launch their raft in order to have a chance
of making it to land. And since the inmates may have made it to the roof by 10:30 PM,
this window seems possible. Though, even then, they would’ve had to let the currents carry
them to Horseshoe Bay, northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge, rather than trying to reach Angel Island. The model also suggested that items left at the shoreline near Horseshoe Bay would drift back towards Angel Island, where some of the escapees’ items were recovered once the tides reversed. And while the Dutch scientists’ real life recreation of the escape did not work, as they were unable to
withstand the currents and bring the raft to land, they still got fairly
close to Golden Gate Bridge in a little over an hour aboard the raft. One of the scientists conceded. He still believes the escapees might have been able to pull it off given the rush of adrenaline
and need to survive. Also, one thing I’m gonna point out here, I don’t know how accurate this test is if you have scientists doing the paddling themselves in the boat. – [Shane] Oh, those fucking poindexters? – [Ryan] I just like, I mean, I feel like, maybe have some guys
that are a little closer to the dudes who were escaping. – [Shane] Yeah. – I guess I am generalizing
that scientists are meek individuals, but I’m just saying that if these are inmates, hardened criminals that
are trying to survive, I don’t know if this is the
best people for the job. – Scientists could go to the gym, right? – I suppose. – Chris Pratt in the Jurassic World film. – He’s not a scientist. – I thought he was. – He’s also a fictional character. – His name is Owen Grady. Whoa there, Blue. – Oh Jesus Christ. – Everybody loves Blue, a great character. – [Ryan] David Widner, the
nephew of the Anglin Brothers, has said that his uncle Robert, one of John and Clarence’s older brothers, confessed on his deathbed
to his sisters, quote, “that they didn’t have to
worry about their brothers, “that he had been in touch
with them and they were okay.” End quote. Widner added that his grandmother, who would’ve been John and
Clarence Anglin’s mother, would sometimes receive
roses with her sons’ signatures on the card
following the 1962 escape. Multiple family members of
John and Clarence Anglin have claimed over the
years at family funerals that they have noticed mysterious women wearing veils and/or heavy makeup, which could have been the
undercover Anglin Brothers coming to pay their respects. In 2015, a history channel show claimed that a photo taken of two men in Brazil 13 years after the escape depicted brothers John and Clarence Anglin alive. The photograph came from Fred Brizzi, a childhood friend of the Anglin Brothers, who turned it over to the
family sometime in the 1990s. Brizzi’s story is that he
was on a trip in Brazil when he happened to run into
John and Clarence at a bar. Brizzi has since passed away. Many in the Anglin family
have held onto the belief that John and Clarence
survived the escape. They also believe the photo
shows John and Clarence. An expert connected with
the history channel show concluded that the photo
showed the Anglin Brothers. The U.S. Marshal’s office
investigated the claim. Their experts do not believe the photo depicts John and Clarence. However, they acknowledge
that a solid determination isn’t really possible given
the age and wear to the photo and the fact that the subjects
are wearing sunglasses. – Their execution of this
plan was so impressive that, I know it’s technically
not legal to do this, but just give ’em a pass. – Also, let’s say they
survived the escape. The fact that they didn’t get into trouble for the next 50 years
means jail worked for them. – Jail worked. – They received penance. They’ve stuck to the plan,
they had a lot of conviction, and, you know what, they deserve
to be free at that point. – I mean, prison, truly, should be about reforming the soul of a man. – And these folks, all they did was drink caipirinhas in Brazil. As for the aftermath of the escape, Allen West, the inmate left behind, cooperated with officials in the search, finishing serving his sentence across three different
prisons following Alcatraz, and was released in 1967. But he remained free for only one year before landing himself concurrent
sentences of five years, one to three years, and life
for grand larceny and robbery. He died in 1978. Alcatraz shut down in March 1963, less than a year after
the Anglin-Morris escape. The FBI officially closed their case on the 1962 escape from Alcatraz on December 31st, 1979, over 15 years after their
investigation began. However, they add, quote, “It’s one mystery we’d all
like to solve.” End quote. The case is expected to remain open with federal marshals until either the fugitives are arrested, evidence of their deaths is found, or the fugitives reach 99 years of age. In the end, nobody truly
knows if the enterprising bunch of Alcatraz escapees
completed their journey, or if their midnight voyage was ill-fated. For now, the case remains unsolved. – I tell you what, on my 99th birthday, I’d be walking into the
U.S. Marshal’s office and just being like, fuck you guys. – Your grandson wheels
you in in a wheelchair and you’re just, sunglasses on, just – Fuck you coppers. – It’s me, I was drinking
caipirinhas for the last 30 years. Suck it coppers. And then you just die in your wheelchair.

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