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Have you seen these refugees? The mystery of the Alcatraz escape remains after 60 years

Sixty years ago this week, Bay Area residents awoke to one of the most fascinating and amazing stories of the century when three young and athletic geniuses achieved what had long been considered impossible: they escaped from Alcatraz.

“Three Alcatraz convicts spooned themselves out of a thick concrete block of cells and escaped from prison yesterday,” the Chronicle’s cover story began on June 13, 1962. “Their fates are unknown.”

And it remains unknown.

Technically, fugitives Frank Morris, Charles Anglin, and John Anglin are still wanted men. Dead or alive, the fugitives, all convicted bank robbers who escaped other prisons, have never been found and currently occupy the front page of the US Marshals Fugitive Investigations website – with age-enhanced photos of the trio who would be in their 90s by now.

News of the escape broke on Tuesday, June 12, 1962, breaking a weak news week early in the summer break.

“OUT OF ALCATRAZ BY A SPOON” smashed the front page of the Chronicle, though the use of spoons turned out to be one of the least interesting facts of the escape, which involved digging around a metal vent, climbing poles, and yourself sneaking past guard towers and on the north end of the island.

The June 13, 1962, front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which contained an article detailing the escape of three inmates from Alcatraz prison.

The June 13, 1962, front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which contained an article detailing the escape of three inmates from Alcatraz prison.

Archive of the Chronicle

Inmate ingenuity included:

• Using a makeshift drill built from a fan motor and silently muffled to remove a vent in each cell by drilling tiny holes over a period of several months.

• Build a secret workshop high above the cell block where Morris and the Anglins fused raincoats together to make a raft and life jackets.

• Creation of dummies with plaster heads, painted faces and real human hair from the hair salon that fooled the guards at the bed check and gave the inmates a head start of almost 10 hours.

“Warden Blackwell allowed newsmen to see one of the dummies the men left in their cell,” The Chronicle reported two days later after touring the cell. “It was amazingly lifelike and adorned with human hair, believed to have come from the prison hair salon.”

Nothing could have made the story bigger apart from the early invention of social media. Chronicle photos showed locals queuing at the telescopes at Pier 43 to watch search efforts by several agencies. The story dominated the front page for a week.

People looking through a telescope at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary after the trio escaped.

People looking through a telescope at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary after the trio escaped.

Joe Rosenthal/The Chronicle

As the search dragged on, federal officials downplayed the story, insisting the occupants must have drowned. Chronicle editors responded by hiring a boat, an Olympic Club coach, and two swimmers to simulate the swim from Alcatraz to Angel Island. They were successful, making the journey in 53 minutes.

“Swimming isn’t too difficult,” concluded Olympic Club coach Earl Geneck afterwards. “It could be done by inexperienced swimmers if they condition themselves by taking cold showers.”

By the weekend, five days after their disappearance, the fugitives had reached the status of heroes and outlaws. The Chronicle wrote an editorial condemning their past crimes while in the newspaper publisher’s office it nearly offered them amnesty.

“If Morris and the Anglin brothers did indeed get away with it, and dumbed down all the art, science, and criminal acrobatics that went into making Alcatraz ‘escape-proof,'” the editorial concluded, “then we offer them a quiet cheer for that they did in the end destroyed the myth of his sanctity.”

There were very few clues. The largest was a sealed bag of addresses and numbers found near the Golden Gate Bridge, presumably so convicts could contact friends and family after escaping. Later, a Norwegian ocean liner discovered a body floating in front of the Golden Gate, apparently wearing prison garb.

Correctional Officer Orrin T. Maybee looks at the inside of the escape hole and the cover designed by the prisoners.

Correctional Officer Orrin T. Maybee looks at the inside of the escape hole and the cover designed by the prisoners.

US prison Alcatraz 1962

Alcatraz officials pointed to both as evidence the inmates were dead and claimed their string of escape attempts was intact. The prison was closed less than a year later and turned into a national park with the legend of Morris and the Anglins forming part of the tour. They remain the most famous escapees and the most likely survivors. (Another pair made it into the water in the 1930s and were never found, but the tide was much heavier that day and they are presumed dead.)

The 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz is a fictional film based on the escape, starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris. His end suggests the bag filled with addresses was a ruse and Morris survived.

The FBI has long since referred the case to the US Marshals, where it remains open. Investigator Michael Dyke told The Chronicle’s Jill Tucker in 2012 that he believes one of the men died, but the other two survived.

“I think there’s still a good chance they made it,” Dyke said. “I can’t prove it. Well, I can’t tell you anything anyway.”

One of the four heads created by Alcatraz inmates Frank Morris and Charles and John Anglin to help them escape from the infamous prison in 1962.

One of the four heads created by Alcatraz inmates Frank Morris and Charles and John Anglin to help them escape from the infamous prison in 1962.

FBI San Francisco

Requests to update the case have been unsuccessful. But US Marshal Don O’Keefe, the agency’s head, released an official statement to the Department of Fugitive Investigations. And the men’s sketches have been updated over the past decade to age the fugitives another 10 years.

“The ongoing investigation by the US Marshals into the 1962 escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary serves as a warning to the fugitives that whatever the time, we will continue to seek you and bring you to justice,” O’Keefe said.

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is a cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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