Mystery Still Swirls Around Alcatraz Escape Three inmates dug a hole in their cells, crawled three stories to the roof, and escaped from the maximum security prison almost 50 years ago. The FBI says the men drowned. But given that they had a raft, life jackets, favorable winds and a big head start, did they survive? U.S. marshals are still chasing down leads.
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Mystery Still Swirls Around Alcatraz Escape

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Mystery Still Swirls Around Alcatraz Escape

Mystery Still Swirls Around Alcatraz Escape

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We have a little more this morning on one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. history. In 1962, three convicts, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin, set out in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay in a homemade raft. They had escaped from Alcatraz. What happened to them next has always been a mystery and even now the U.S. Marshals are still looking for answers. In the second of two stories, NPR's Laura Sullivan examines new information that has turned up over the last half century.

LAURA SULLIVAN: In the corner of a dark bar just up the street from the docks of the San Francisco Bay, Darwin Coon sips vodka and 7's on a bar stool named after him. He's a half-century older than most of the people in here, but everyone knows him.

He's the former Alcatraz inmate, and these days one of only a handful of men still alive who were there the morning Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers disappeared.

Coon was on the early breakfast shift when an officer burst in and hauled him back to his cell.

Mr. DARWIN COON (Former Inmate): I got back into the cell house and all the cons were hollering, hey, they got away, they got away, they got away!

SULLIVAN: Coon wasn't surprised. He had helped John Anglin steal tools for almost six months.

Mr. COON: Screwdrivers, pliers, a pair of scissors. He was a friend of mine. Yeah, them two brothers were nice people, you know.

SULLIVAN: Coon had known the Anglin brothers since they were locked up together at Leavenworth prison, where the brothers were well-known for their repeated escape attempts. Coon has never heard from John or Clarence Anglin since they left Alcatraz, but he has no doubts.

Mr. COON: What happened to them? They got away.

SULLIVAN: A lot of people seem to want to believe that, and they may have good reason. The planning was painstaking and meticulous.

Mr. MICHAEL DYKE (U.S. Marshal): This is one of the vests that was recovered, and as you can see, it's a decent-sized vest.

SULLIVAN: U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke is looking over old evidence photos. He says Frank Morris was the brains behind the operation. The onetime foster kid had been locked up for the most part since he was 14 years old. It was Morris who figured out how to give the homemade raft and life vests an airtight seal.

Mr. DYKE: You can see there's glue around here, and there's like a wooden mouthpiece. This is what they used, Remweld(ph) glue, which is like a shoe repair glue, and then they also used the steam pipes for heat to seal it up.

SULLIVAN: The vests and boat were only part of the plan. The men made dummy lifelike heads to fool the guards, chiseled their way into a utility corridor, and found a path down to the water.

In the days after their disappearance, officials found several life vests scattered throughout the area and a spare raft. In FBI tests, all of them were able to float for many hours.

Dyke also ran his own tests with the Coast Guard. It showed the men could survive in the cold water for at least 2 1/2 hours if the boat failed.

Plus, Dyke says a paddle was recovered near Angel Island, their destination, also possibly a raft. The wind was blowing in that direction. And, Dyke says, there are a few other things the men had in their favor.

Mr. DYKE: An eight to 10 hour jump start. If they were able to steal a car, even though there was a nationwide manhunt, there's all kinds of roads - other possibilities. They could have went out of the country too.

SULLIVAN: The FBI has long held that the men drowned, consumed by the frigid temperatures of the Bay. They point to a Norwegian shipping freighter whose crew spotted a body in the Pacific Ocean six weeks after the escape. But the crew waited several more months before they even reported it.

Regardless, the assistant director of the Bureau of Prisons told the press: The tides and winds that night were strong. Only a trained athlete could make such a swim.

SULLIVAN: That may not necessarily be true.

Mr. DEVON MECHAM: Anyone can do this. It's just scary to get in. A guy in a wheelchair (unintelligible)...

SULLIVAN: Devon Mecham is 14 years old. He and his dad and 600 other people have all just crawled out of the water on a San Francisco beach after swimming from Alcatraz. Some are wearing wetsuits, some just swimsuits. Some are swimming it for the third time, like Devon's father, James Mecham.

Mr. JAMES MECHAM: I think it's highly likely that people could swim that. (Unintelligible) kind of numb.

Mr. DEVON MECHAM: And salty.

Mr. JAMES MECHAM: And salty, very salty. If I was swimming for my life? This is for fun. If this was my life on the line? Doesn't seem like it would be that tough.

SULLIVAN: With so much going for the men, it's not hard for Marshal Dyke to come up with new leads.

He recently fingerprinted a man in Delaware who matched Clarence Anglin's description. He chased down a story about a tavern owner in Florida who allegedly sent a boat to Alcatraz the night of the escape. He's interviewed dozens of people in Georgia, the Anglins' home, where some family members say they're alive, and farm sightings seem to be frequent.

But after all these years, all of it has come to nothing.

The Delaware lead turned out to be a pesky neighbor. The tavern owner doesn't seem to exist. The relatives have no first-hand knowledge. The strongest lead now may be the one Dyke hasn't seen: In half a century, there has not been one single, credible piece of evidence that Frank Morris and the John and Clarence Anglin ever set foot on dry land - even for an hour.

Mr. DYKE: To this date, nothing concrete saying that they're alive or that they even made it.

SULLIVAN: Which brings Dyke back to the one question he started with: Could three career criminals with no money or resources, who could never stay out of trouble for more than a month, really have spent the past 50 years in hiding, without even being suspected of a single crime?

Dyke doesn't think so.

And all the lab tests and water simulations in the world are not the San Francisco Bay. On a recent afternoon on Alcatraz, just above the prison courtyard, where Morris and the Anglins surely stood and studied their route to freedom, you can see the tides moving so swiftly they look like a river in an ocean.

The water temperature was 54 degrees that night. With spring snow melt and strong nighttime tides, the water would have been barreling out of the bay as fast as six knots.

It's hard to understand how, after such meticulous planning, Morris and the Anglins would set out in a little raft at the worst possible time of year, at the worst possible time of night, headed in the worst possible direction, north toward Angel Island. They or their bodies could have been in the Pacific Ocean in under an hour.

Mr. DYKE: Sometimes I wish - I hope they did escape, because then I can catch them.

SULLIVAN: U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke says what he really wants is an answer. Any answer.

Mr. DYKE: I'd be pretty relieved because I can go on to other things if I can prove it. Whether that ever happens or not is more and more doubtful as years go by. So...

SULLIVAN: Frank Morris would be 83 this year. John and Clarence Anglin, 79 and 78.

Eventually, Michael Dyke will be sure they are dead - as they may have been all along - having taken with them any chance of finding out what happened the night three men escaped from the country's only escape-proof prison.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: I've just been looking here at a timeline of other attempted escapes from Alcatraz, and you can see that timeline at

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