A Chicago Jailbreak Right Out Of Central Casting

Host Rachel Martin talks to reporter Steve Bogira in Chicago about the conclusion of a spectacular jailbreak in that city, in which two inmates shimmied down 15 stories on a rope made from bedsheets.

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It was a jailbreak right out of central casting. In mid-December, two convicted bank robbers shimmied through a tiny window and descended 15 stories - from their high-rise jail, smack in the middle of Chicago. Their rope was made of bedsheets. Once on the ground, they just hailed a cab and took off. Joseph Banks was caught a few days later, but the other escaped inmate, Kenneth Conley, wasn't apprehended until last week. Joining us from member station WBEZ, to talk about this caper, is Steve Bogira. He's a senior writer for the Chicago Reader. Welcome to the program, Steve.

STEVE BOGIRA: Nice to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So I guess my first question is kind of the obvious one, but how did two guys dangle from a building in downtown Chicago more than a hundred feet off the ground - and nobody notices?

BOGIRA: Well, a lot of us are busy watching - or looking at our smartphones. But that, of course, is a key question. They escaped sometime between 10 at night, when they were present for a bedcheck; and 2:40 the next morning, when they hopped into a cab a few blocks away. A surveillance video later showed that. So one thing was, it was dark out.

MARTIN: They apparently, as we mentioned, just connected a bunch of bedsheets together and shimmied down the building. I mean, how did they get the sheets - they just collected them?

BOGIRA: It's been almost four weeks now, and jail officials are still not commenting about this. They're saying that they're still investigating. They would have taken a number of sheets. How did they get them? Where did they keep them? Why didn't anyone notice?

MARTIN: So, you say jail officials are investigating. Have they said anything publicly about this escape? I imagine this is a big deal for them; this is - kind of a problem.

BOGIRA: Yeah. They say they're investigating. You know, another key question is, is the jail short-staffed, and did that play a role in the escape? That's what some sources are telling us. There are security cameras, of course, that show the building exterior; but according to the sources, one of the guards who's supposed to watch the video monitors is often called away, to help do prisoner counts. So, it's possible no one was watching the monitors when the inmates were rappelling down the wall.

MARTIN: This was at the Federal Metropolitan Correctional Center. What do we know about the escapees, in this case? Neither of them left the Chicago area after they escaped; you'd think they'd hightail it out of there.

BOGIRA: Joseph Banks is 37, fashion designer before he switched to bank robbery. He was known as the secondhand bandit because he wore thrift store clothes when he did his robberies. The other guy, Conley, who's 38, was a strip club worker, who dressed more formally for the bank heists he pulled. He wore a black suit and a white tie. The jailbreak had to take weeks of meticulous planning, but they were actually better at actually getting out than figuring out how to stay out.

MARTIN: Journalist Steve Bogira, in Chicago, is the author of "Courtroom 302," about the criminal courts. Steve, thanks for talking with us.

BOGIRA: Happy to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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