RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fifty years ago, three men set out into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay in a raft made out of raincoats. It was one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. history.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A spoon proved mightier than the bars at supposedly escape-proof Alcatraz prison. Three bank robbers serving long terms scratched their way through grills covering an air vent, climbed a drainage pipe and disappeared from the forbidding rock in San Francisco Bay. It appears to be the first successful escape in the history of the maximum-security prison.
MARTIN: The men were never seen again. It was a brilliant plan, carried out with meticulous care and patience, but with such an unsatisfying ending. Did they make it? Or are they, as most people assume, at the bottom of the bay? The legend has always held that if the men are alive, they will return to Alcatraz on the 50th anniversary of their breakout.
There's little chance that's going to happen, but the anniversary is tomorrow, and NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan is to the island to see if they show up.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The U.S. Marshals say they will be there, too.
Three years ago, I went to Alcatraz for a story. And a ranger there named John Cantwell took me up to the roof and he flung open the door, and there it was - the old air vent, a wide-open roof and a pipe hugging the building all the way to the bottom. As Cantwell called it, the path to freedom.
JOHN 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. They slid down the pipe, hopped over that fence, they ran past those water tanks, and down that hillside to the east side of the island. Where the smokestack is where they basically entered the water.
SULLIVAN: It was such a terrific plan. What guard in the 1960s would think you could dig your way out of a maximum security prison with a spoon?
LIEUTENANT BILL LONG: Totally normal night for me. I worked all night through this.
SULLIVAN: Bill Long was the lieutenant in charge of the cell block that night. I found out last week he died a couple years ago. But when I spoke to him in 2009, he said that in retrospect there were a couple weird things that happened on the shift before his. One guard said he thought he heard a hubcap rolling on the floor, which of course now brings to mind that air vent. And another guy said he could have sworn he heard footsteps.
But it didn't come to anything. Everyone was in their beds. Frank Morris and the two brothers, John and Clarence Anglin, had created these life-like paper-mache heads, propped perfectly on their pillows. Even Bill Long didn't realize they were dummies until morning.
LONG: The men had went around the gallery to count and when they did, the man on B1, he didn't come back. He was hot-footing it. He says, Bill, Bill, I got a guy up here who won't get up for count. Well, I says, 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 reach 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...
LONG: ...that there's a head that fell off on the floor. They said I jumped four feet back from the bars. I mean it - the most unexpected thing you could almost imagine.
SULLIVAN: The men had vanished. Morris and the Anglins had made a boat and life vests out of raincoats. They even made glue to seal the seams. Days later, when one of the vests turned up on a beach in Northern California, it was still seaworthy. So where did they go?
MICHAEL DYKE: I don't get excited about leads. 'Cause if you get emotionally involved in leads, then it obscures your judgment.
SULLIVAN: U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke has been hunting for Morris and the Anglins for almost a decade. People call him all the time with sightings and theories about their neighbors. Even Dyke thinks the men are probably dead. But he's still looking.
DYKE: The marshals don't give up looking for anybody, especially in fugitive investigations. If you've got a warrant, we're never going to stop looking for you, he says.
SULLIVAN: The escape from Alcatraz is the marshal's sixth-oldest case. The other five are also prison escapes from the 1950s. Dyke says the marshals need proof of death, or the fugitives have to turn 99 - a little tip if you end up on the run. Morris and the Anglins are only in their mid-80s.
Do you think they're going to show up?
DYKE: I don't think so.
SULLIVAN: What would you do if they did show up?
DYKE: I would arrest them.
SULLIVAN: It's hard to imagine they would come just to be handcuffed, or that someone would prosecute them even if they did. Nonviolent bank robbers from half a century ago? Morris' first criminal charge was for stealing food after his parents either died or abandoned him. He was sent to prison when he was just 14.
Inmates told investigators Morris was the mastermind. Such a well-conceived plan. Yet, it failed to take into account one crucial thing: the midnight tides in the San Francisco Bay.
You can swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, but you can't do it headed in the wrong direction - at night, in frigid temperatures, just as the snow melt from the Sierras is barreling through the Golden Gate Bridge. Several weeks after the men disappeared, a Norwegian shipping vessel reported seeing a body floating face down in the ocean just a few miles past the bridge. It was wearing a navy blue pea coat.
Nobody seems to know where the rumor started that the men would return on the 50th anniversary. But tomorrow, Marshal Dyke and even some of the Anglins' family members will take the ferry over to Alcatraz to wait - just in case.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.