7:35am

Tue June 12, 2012
History

50 Years Later, Mystery Of Alcatraz Escape Endures

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 1:37 pm

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 from what was billed as the nation's only "escape-proof prison" — Alcatraz.

Most people assume the men have been at the bottom of the bay or were swept out to sea since the night they broke free, tunneling out of their cells in part with spoons from the kitchen and climbing the prisons' plumbing to the roof.

But the legend of their escape has held that the men, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin, would return on the 50th anniversary of their breakout. It's an unfounded rumor that drew an unlikely group to the island Monday to mark half a century passed, including many of the Anglin brothers' family.

Hope For Their Return

Marie Widner was one of them. She is John and Clarence Anglin's little sister.

"I'll never believe they're dead; I don't believe they're dead," Widner said as she stood in the prison's old medical ward.

She was in her 20s when she first heard the news.

"I was listening to the radio when [the newscasters] told about it," she remembered. "I cut my iron off and I run to my neighbors house and said, 'Did you hear what was on the radio? My brothers escaped from Alcatraz.' "

The FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and local police scoured the water. They eventually found a paddle, a couple of life vests, a sealed plastic bag with letters and addresses. But there was no sign of the men.

Like Morris, the Anglins were nonviolent bank robbers. They were sent to Alcatraz not because they were violent or dangerous but because they had escaped from so many other prisons.

"Authorities said they would never put them together anywhere because they liked to get together and plan out an escape," Widner said. "But they brought them here and said we're putting them together [because] they will never get off this island. And that was just what the boys wanted. They wanted to be together — cell by cell."

It was in those cells the men saw through their plan to make dummy heads to fool the guards and to collect enough raincoats to make a raft. They even sealed the seams with glue.

Widner remembers a letter they sent home just before the escape.

"They talked about the grass being greener on the other side," she said. "Think about it. That's saying, I'm not staying here. I'm getting out of here. That's what I took it as."

There has never been any proof the men made it. The frigid waters and high tides of the San Francisco Bay could have sent them into the Pacific Ocean in under an hour. A Norwegian shipping freighter reported seeing a body floating just a few miles out past the Golden Gate Bridge wearing a navy blue pea coat. But there's also never been any definitive proof the men died.

'Awesome Escape ... You're Under Arrest'

The Anglins weren't the only ones waiting on the island. U.S. marshal Michael Dyke has been searching for the men for almost a decade. It's mostly a hobby now. Something he does in his free time.

"It would be really nice to have answers, but some things you never have answers for," Dyke said. "They could have died of old age. They could have died in 1962. But it's hard to say. Until there's evidence to the fact that they're not alive anymore, I'm going to keep looking."

If he saw them, he knows what he would say: "Awesome escape. Way to go for staying out of trouble for so long. You're under arrest."

For a long time the FBI and the U.S. Marshals looked upon the Anglin family as targets of their investigation. But in recent years, Dyke and Widner have found themselves having long phone conversations and sharing information. Both just want to know what happened.

Dyke doesn't really believe the men would return for an anniversary. Neither does Widner. Though both of them may have hoped just a little.

"I really do believe the boys made it out of here," Widner said. "I do believe the boys are alive today. I don't know where they are. I have not heard from them, but my gut feeling is that they're OK."

As Widner and her sister boarded one of the last boats to San Francisco, there was no sign of the men. They'd all be in their 80s now.

This time of year you can see the tides funneling water past the island out under the olden Golden Gate Bridge. From shore, it's hard to imagine three men in a boat made of raincoats drifting away at midnight.

Dyke says he'll keep looking for them until he can prove they're dead — as they may have been all along.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fifty years ago, three men set out into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, in a raft made out of raincoats. They were taking part in one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Agents of the FBI, Coast Guardmen, highway patrol, sheriff's deputies and local police join in the search. Whatever their fate, the three convicts have apparently accomplished a feat that many have tried, with no success.

GREENE: Most people assume the men have been at the bottom of the bay since the night they broke free from Alcatraz. But the legend has held that if they survived, the men would return on the 50th anniversary of their escape. Highly unlikely scenario. But that anniversary was yesterday, and NPR's Laura Sullivan spent the day on Alcatraz. She wasn't the only one.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Exactly 50 years ago, Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin, looked out at these exact, same turbulent waters. And they knew that in just a few hours, they would be heading out in their homemade raft. It was such a brilliant plan - a year in the making. They tunneled their way out of their cells using, largely, kitchen spoons. And they climbed up the plumbing to the roof of this large, beige building behind me and shimmied down the drain pipe that's still hugging the wall right now. They ran down to the water and right here, set off. And they were never seen again.

MARIE WIDNER: I'll never believe they're dead. I don't believe they're dead.

SULLIVAN: Marie Widner is John and Clarence Anglin's little sister. She was in her 20s when she heard the news.

WIDNER: I was listening to the radio when they told about it. And I cut my iron off, and I run to my neighbor's house and I said, did you hear what was on the radio? My brothers escaped from Alcatraz.

SULLIVAN: Investigators eventually found a paddle, a couple life vests, a sealed plastic bag with letters and addresses - but no sign of the men.

Marie Widner and her sister, Mearl Taylor, came to the island yesterday with a few relatives to mark five decades passing since that night. Her brothers were bank robbers, sent here not because they were violent or dangerous, but because they had escaped from so many other prisons.

WIDNER: Authorities said they would never put them together anywheres because they liked to get together and plan out the escape. But they said - you know, brought them here - we're putting these brothers together; they will never get off of this island. And that was just what the boys wanted. They wanted to be together, cell by cell.

SULLIVAN: She remembers a letter they sent home just before the escape.

WIDNER: They talked about the grass being greener on the other side. You know, think about it. That's saying, I'm not staying here. I'm getting out of here. That's what I took it as.

MICHAEL DYKE: It would be really nice to have answers. But some things, you never have answers for.

SULLIVAN: The Anglins weren't the only ones waiting on the island. U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke has been searching for the men for almost a decade - mostly in his free time.

DYKE: They could have died of old age; they could have died in 1962. It's hard to say. But until there's evidence to the fact that they're not alive anymore, I'm going to keep looking.

SULLIVAN: He knows what he would say if he saw them.

DYKE: Awesome escape. Way to go, staying out of trouble for so long. You're under arrest.

SULLIVAN: For a long time, the FBI and the marshals looked upon the Anglin's family as targets of their investigation. But in recent years, Marshal Dyke and Marie Widner have found themselves having long phone conversations, and sharing information. Both just want to know what happened. They hear lots of rumors. But there's never been any definitive proof the men made it to dry land.

Marie Widner doesn't really believe her brothers would return for an anniversary, though maybe a small part of her hoped they would come.

WIDNER: I really, really do believe the boys made it out of here. And I really do believe that the boys are alive today. Don't know where they are, have not heard from them. But my gut feeling tells me they are OK.

SULLIVAN: As the sisters boarded one of the last boats to San Francisco, there was no sign of the men. They'd all be in their 80s now. This time of year, you can see these tides funneling water past the island out under the Golden Gate Bridge. And it's hard to imagine three men in a boat made of raincoats, drifting away at midnight. But U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke says he'll keep looking for them until he can prove they're dead - as they may have been all along.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Alcatraz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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