On June 12, 1962, three inmates vanished from the federal prison at Alcatraz. That island prison was built as the country's only escape-proof prison. Their disappearance launched a manhunt that continues to this day. NPR's Laura Sullivan brings us the first of two reports on the U.S. Marshals' search for the men.

LAURA SULLIVAN: It's been almost half a century since Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin dug their way out of their cells and set off into the frigid, turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay in a homemade raft. But for U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, it might as well have been yesterday.

Mr. MICHAEL DYKE (Deputy, U.S. Marshals Service): Leads still come in. I still follow up leads. I got one a couple weeks ago.

SULLIVAN: Dyke has flown across the country, chasing tips, fingerprinting men from Delaware to Florida, digging up hundreds of old driver's license photos on the chance that Morris and the Anglins are alive. The leads pile up two feet high on his desk.

Mr. DYKE: Here's one that says they were in a small town in Alabama right in a small farm.

SULLIVAN: When the research gets really interesting, he likes to pop in some old music to get him in the mood. It brightens his gray government office.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DYKE: Here's one that's saying that they came to her house when she was a little girl, and she said her father told her that as a child Clarence Anglin used to come to her house regularly.

SULLIVAN: This escape has always captured the public's imagination. Three bank robbers, each sent to Alcatraz for repeatedly escaping elsewhere, a notorious prison that housed only the worst of the worst, an ingenious plan that outwitted dozens of guards. It filled the airwaves for months.

(Soundbite of archived radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: It appears to be the first successful escape in the history of the maximum security prison as agents of the FBI, Coast Guards, highway patrol, sheriffs, deputies and local police join in the search.

SULLIVAN: Even now, Marshal Dyke says it's hard sometimes not to root just a little for the bad guys, to wonder if just maybe they actually could have pulled it off. But it doesn't matter.

Mr. DYKE: There's an active warrant and the Marshals Service doesn't give up looking for people. And in this case, this would just be like saying, well, yeah, they probably are dead. We're going to quit looking. Well, there's no proof they're dead, so we're not going to quit looking.

SULLIVAN: Proof of death. It's the one thing that has flummoxed local police, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Bureau of Prisons, the FBI and the Marshals about this case for almost 50 years. Statistically, the majority of bodies that drown in the bay float to the top after a few days. In this case, not even one of the bodies surfaced. They all simply vanished.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

SULLIVAN: Morris and the Anglin brothers planned their escape from this island for almost a year. They stole prison-issue raincoats to craft a boat and life vests. They molded soap and paper into life-sized heads with hair, lips and eyebrows, placed on their pillows to fool the guards into thinking they were sleeping. They stole tools and kitchen spoons to chip away a hole in the back of their cells big enough to crawl through.

Mr. JOHN CANTWELL (Ranger, National State Park): You can see the holes. That's a fairly large hole to climb through. Those are the original holes that these convicts constructed.

SULLIVAN: U.S. Park Ranger John Cantwell pulls a long handle to open the doors to Morris and the Anglins' cells.

As the tours mills out listening to an audio tour, Cantwell picks up the fake paper mache covers the men used to hide the holes. They still look real.

Mr. CANTWELL: You hang a couple of coats or maybe a towel in front of it and it camouflages that portal into the utility corridor.

SULLIVAN: Ranger Cantwell squeezes through a small door into that narrow passage where tourists aren't allowed.

Mr. CANTWELL: We are in a utility corridor behind the actual cells that they escaped from. If you look up you can actually see the plumbing that they used as a ladder.

SULLIVAN: At the top of the plumbing is a landing. Morris and the Anglins convinced officers to allow them to clean and paint this landing during the day, hidden behind a cloth. What they were really doing was gluing a raft together out of raincoats, something they learned from a subscription to Popular Mechanics magazine.

Mr. CANTWELL: And you can see the actual paint where they stopped. See the white fresh paint on the right there. And so they were going down the way there, so they did start their maintenance job. They did paint half that ceiling.

SULLIVAN: Soon the raft and life vests were ready. And on the night of June 11, 1962, the men climbed to the landing and pushed themselves through an air vent to the roof above. We take the stairs.

Mr. CANTWELL: So we've got three convicts climbing through an air vent. They pop the vent off, kick it off. They're on the roof now and they run across the rooftop, trying not to make too much noise.

SULLIVAN: They made their way to the water pipe at the roof's edge.

Mr. CANTWELL: They slid down the pipe, hopped over that fence. They ran past those water tanks, then down that hillside to the east side of the island. Where the smokestack is is where basically entered the water.

Mr. BILL LONG (Former Alcatraz Guard): Totally normal night for me.

SULLIVAN: Bill Long was the lieutenant in charge of the cell block on the midnight to morning shift that night. He never heard a peep.

Mr. LONG: I worked all night through this.

SULLIVAN: Long's now 85 and living in rural Pennsylvania. He remembers a few odd things that happened on the shift before his. A lieutenant reported a loud bang he described as a hubcap rolling on the floor — or an air vent being popped onto a roof? And another officer reported hearing what he thought were footsteps above him. But it came to nothing, until Long ordered the morning count.

Mr. LONG: The men went around the gallery to count and when they did the man on B1, he didn't come back.

SULLIVAN: Long went to find him.

Mr. LONG: He was hotfooting it. He says, Bill, Bill, I got a guy up here who won't get up for count. Well I said, Sarge, I'll get him up. So I went down to the cell, get down on my knee, put my head against the bar. I reached my left hand in through the bars and hit the pillow and hollered, get up for count. Bam, the head flopped off on the floor. Oh, I thought right then that there's a head that fell off on the floor. They said I jumped four feet back from the bars. I mean, it's the most unexpected thing you could almost imagine.

SULLIVAN: Long ran to the phone and sounded the alarm.

Ms. JOLENE BABYAK: The siren woke me up.

SULLIVAN: Jolene Babyak was 15 the morning of the escape living on Alcatraz just down the hill from where she's standing, in the officer's quarters with her mother and father.

Ms. BABYAK: They called my father, who was the acting warden, and he opened the safe, which is the guard's escape plan, details where everybody is to go and whether they have guns or not. So he put that whole thing into motion. They called Washington, D.C. They began alerting the newspapers. They used to say that it was the biggest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

SULLIVAN: Boats scoured the bay and far out into the ocean. Officers searched every corner of the island. Local police for hundreds of miles looked for any sign of the men.

But Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin were never seen again.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We're looking at photos of some of the homemade tools or prison-made tools, I suppose I should say, that the men used to get out of Alcatraz, one of many amazing photos that you can find at our Web site,

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