The Real Story of the Great Alcatraz Escape

For more than four decades, the great escape from Alcatraz has puzzled investigators and police. At the time, the police concluded that the three inmates who attempted to escape drowned in the freezing cold water off of the island. Some people believe there is a different ending. Could the FBI have covered it up? What really happened to the three men who successfully escaped Alcatraz?

The Letter

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cbsnews.com

It was an ordinary day in 2013 at the San Francisco Police Department when a mysterious letter was delivered. “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris,” the letter read.

Keeping the Letter Secret

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For five years, the letter was kept a secret from the public. It wasn’t until 2018 that it was released. People thought the FBI was responsible for keeping it hidden because they didn’t want to reopen the investigation, especially because the letter contradicted what they had originally claimed in the 1960s.

Alcatraz

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Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison that was home to America’s most notorious criminals. It was open for only a short period of time, from 1934 to 1963. It was located on an island off the coast of California’s San Francisco. There were many attempted escapes from the prison, but nobody was ever successful.

Impossible

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While the idea of escaping Alcatraz seemed possible, it wasn’t in reality. Escaping alone meant certain death and escaping with more than one person meant putting all of your trust in other inmates and gathering resources and sticking to a plan. There were 33 prisoners who attempted to escape. 23 of those inmates were captured, 6 were shot to death, 2 drowned, and 2 were believed to have drowned.

The Gang

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Four inmates planned an escape together despite hearing about other botched escape attempts. These inmates were Frank Lee Morris, Allen West, and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. Their cells were near one-another, giving them the perfect opportunity to plan their grand escape.

The Past

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The Anglin brothers had met Frank Lee Morris before Alcatraz in a prison in Atlanta. Prison staff and the authorities weren’t aware of this information until their investigation into the gang’s escape.

Frank Lee Morris

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Frank Lee Morris wasn’t your average criminal. He was a criminal mastermind and had escaped from prison before. He had a difficult childhood. Orphaned at the age 11, he committed his first crime at the age of 13. He would later be known as the leader of the Great Escape from Alcatraz.

Previous Escape

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Morris was familiar with the prison system. He had seen the insides of multiple state prisons throughout his life. When he was moved to Louisiana State Penitentiary, he escaped while serving a 10-year sentence for a robbing a bank. When he was caught committing another crime after his escape, he was sentenced to Alcatraz.

The Anglin Brothers

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John and Clarence Anglin came from a large family. They were two of thirteen children who grew up on a farm in Georgia, but moved around a lot as kids. One sweet memory the boys have of growing up is the annual tradition of going cherry picking in the north. Surprisingly, this tradition would play a hand in their escape from Alcatraz.

Early Crimes

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John and Clarence were very close growing up. They spent most of their time together. As kids they would swim in the lake during the summer, making them skilled swimmers. When they got older, they started robbing banks together until they were arrested in 1956.

Attempted Escapes

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The Anglin brothers attempted many times to escape from Atlanta Penitentiary but were never successful. These failed attempts made authorities certain that the brothers would never be able to escape from “The Rock.” Little did they know that the brothers would meet two other inmates that would make the Great Escape from Alcatraz possible.

Keeping a Low Profile

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Bank robbers in Alcatraz were the least of the guards’ worries. They had serial killers and mobsters to look after. Bank robbers were considered petty criminals in Alcatraz.

Many Resources

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Even islands have resources. The gang got lucky being in Alcatraz because the inmates were put to work making furniture, shoes, clothing, and items for the U.S. military.

Dummy Plan

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In order for their escape to be successful they had to think outside of the box and make smart moves. The inmates decided to create look-alike dummies to take their place in their cells during their escape so the guards wouldn’t notice. This was just the beginning of their plan though.

The Risks

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If they failed their escape attempt, it would be severe punishments for the men. A bullet through the head by one of the guards wasn’t out of the question.

Preparation

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The men had to divide tasks amongst themselves to prepare for their escape. They had to collect resources, make tools, and plan their route.

Creating the Dummies

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The Anglin brothers were responsible for creating the dummy heads that would fool the guards into thinking the inmates were in their cells. They used toilet paper, soap wax, and human hair from the barber shop to create the realistic looking heads.

Necessary Equipment

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Making the Tools

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Obviously the inmates weren’t able to get the real tools that they needed for their escape, so they had to use makeshift tools. They used cutlery from the cafeteria and wood to make wrenches and picks. They used these tools to chisel through the walls of their cells at night.

Utilizing the Air Vents

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The inmates were able to remove the air vents in their cells, allowing them to create large holes that they could fit through. Surprisingly, they found old saws on the grounds of Alcatraz and snuck them into their cells.

Crumbling Walls

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The gang was blessed with crumbling walls thanks to saltwater and the lack of maintenance around the prison. They discovered cracked pipes and crumbling cement, which made it easier for the inmates to create their holes.

Warm Water

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The prison made sure that the inmates had warm showers. This was so they didn’t get accustomed to cold water and think that they could swim their way to the mainland.

Chipping Away

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One would think that the first giveaway sign that the gang was planning an escape was the sound of constant chipping away at the walls. Luckily, the inmates were allowed to listen to music for one hour a day. During this hour, the gang would chip away at their walls, unheard by the guards.

Musician Morris

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Morris played his accordion while his fellow inmates chipped away at the wall. Their tunnel led to an empty utility corridor where no guards were stationed.

Tricky Maze

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The utility corridor was similar to a maze and tricky to navigate. If the inmates successfully broke through, they would have to climb up pipes to get to the roof. The tricky part would be finding an open shaft.

The Workspace

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It was in this corridor that the inmates created the tools and dummies they needed for their escape. The authorities were shocked when they discovered the workspace and how they kept it a secret.

The Raft

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The gang created a unique raft made up of 50 raincoats glued together. They also created life vests for themselves. Their plan was starting to come together nicely.

The Last Hole

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The last of the four to finish their hole was Allen West. By June 11, 1962, the inmates were ready to make their escape. The only thing left to do was to create a signal. Then something changed their plan entirely.

Adrenaline Rush

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When the lights went out it created the perfect setting for the most dangerous and infamous prison break in American history. They placed their decoys in their beds and were ready to risk their lives for freedom.

The Bodies

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The inmates put more than just the dummy heads in their beds. They created bodies for the head using clothing and other items and stuffed them under their covers. Nobody could tell that the dummies weren’t real people in the dark.

Unexpected Obstacle

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It was time to make their escape. After the signal was given the men climbed through the holes they worked so hard on. Well, at least three of the men were able to climb through.

Allen’s Realization

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As Allen West tried to climb through his hole, he realized he had made it too small. He wasn’t able to fit! Morris tried to help him through but had no luck. West had to stay in Alcatraz.

Leaving West Behind

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The men unanimously decided to leave West behind during their escape. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it had to be done. Freeing West meant putting their entire plan in jeopardy and they just couldn’t risk it.

Lighter Load

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Leaving West behind actually made their escape much easier. It meant that there would be a lighter load on the raft making it a bit safer. By 9:30 pm the inmates climbed the pipes in the utility corridor.

Halfway There

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Eventually the men made their way to the roof. They walked about a 100 feet to pipes on the side of the building and climbed down another 50 feet to the ground. Now they had to sneak passed the guards and inflate their life vests and rafts.

Off “The Rock”

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Just a few hours later, the inmates left Alcatraz at 11:30 pm on their raft. This was the last time anyone had seen Frank Lee Morris, John and Clarence Anglin. Sirens wailed the next morning throughout the prison when the guards realized three inmates had gone missing. Even the inmates were confused. How could someone successfully break out of Alcatraz?

Making a Choice

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Allen West eventually made it through his hole and out of his cell. He followed the route they had planned and made it to the roof. When the realized the other three had already left he had a choice. Try to swim to land, which could result in his death, or head back to his cell.

The Decision

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West decided it was best if he just returned to his cell. When the sirens awaked him the next morning he didn’t hold any information back from the guards when he was questioned. West told the authorities that the three planned to go to Angel Island to steal a car, get a chance of clothes, and go their separate ways.

Lack of Evidence

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The police were stumped. Within 12 days there weren’t any reports of a stolen car, which made the detectives believe the men never made it to land and drowned in the ocean. West even took credit for the whole plan when asked who the mastermind behind it was. The FBI stepped in for further investigation.

Conclusions

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An investigative team searched the area for days. They found some remnants of personal belongings but never any bodies. During the night of their escape the water’s temperature was between 50 and 54 degrees. According to experts, an adult would only last about 20 minutes in water this temperature before their body stopped functioning.

Body in the Water

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A month after the escape there was a report of a body floating in the water by the Golden Gate Bridge by a Norwegian freighter. It looked like someone who could have been an inmate based on how they were dressed. However, once the team made their way to the site, the body had disappeared.

Closed Case

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Over a decade after the escape, the case was officially closed on December 31, 1979. The FBI concluded that the escaped inmates drowned in the bay. The U.S. Marshals disagreed with the FBI’s decision to close the case. They were sure that new evidence would come up.

Bud Morris

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In 2011 a man named Bud Morris came to light. He said he was Frank Morris’s cousin and admitted to sending money to the guards in Alcatraz as bribes.

Meeting with Frank

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Bud claimed that he met up with Frank after the escape in a San Diego park. Bud’s daughter, who was about nine years old at the time, also remembers meeting her father’s “friend” Frank.

More Evidence

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The History Channel decided to do a special about the Great Alcatraz Escape in 2015 and focused on evidence that proved the inmates successfully escaped. Two pieces of evidence used was a Christmas card signed by the Anglin brothers and a photo of them in Brazil taken in 1975. Forensic experts concluded that it was most likely the Anglin brothers who signed the card and were in the picture.

Family Contact

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Robert Anglin, one of the brothers, admitted on his deathbed that he had been in contact with his two convict brothers from 1963 to 1987. After that they lost contact with his brothers.

Not Worth It

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Presently, Interpol still considers the case to be open. If the Anglin brothers were found in Brazil, they would quickly be arrested by the Brazilian police.

Fate

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The 2013 letter read, “Yes we all made it that night but barely! I’m 83 years old now and in bad shape. I have cancer. Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011. This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo, North Dakota until 2003.” A closer look at the letter, experts were surprised at something they noticed.

In Plain Sight

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At the end of the letter, John Anglin said that he was “living in Southern California now.” Some skeptics don’t believe that an escaped prison inmate would stay so close to Alcatraz. Others thought it was a cry for help. What’s even stranger was a negotiation deal written at the end of the letter.

The Deal

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“If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke…” the letter read. It was such a bizarre deal that nobody knew what to make of it.

New Investigation

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The FBI examined and tested the letter for fingerprints, DNA, and analyzed the handwriting. Everyone was anxious to hear the results, but would be disappointed. The FBI said the results were inconclusive. There was no answer to give the public.

Death or 99

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The U.S. Marshal Service always believed that the three men survived their escape from Alcatraz. However, a spokesperson said that they didn’t believe the letter was authentic or legitimate. “The Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it will do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99,” a statement said. While the FBI stopped their investigation much sooner, “For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas.”

Life of Crime

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A local station in San Francisco, KPIX, published the letter. The U.S. Marshals said, “There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and become completely law-abiding citizens after this escape.” Will we ever get to the bottom of the Great Alcatraz Escape?

Chance of Survival

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A newfound interest in the case started after the letter was published. Researches studied the water currents of the time the inmates escaped and concluded that it was possible they survived. “There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people,” a Deputy US Marshal told NPR in 2009.

Last Guard

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The last guard to leave Alcatraz was Jim Albright. On the 55th anniversary of Alcatraz’s closing, he went back to visit. He believes the inmates drowned that night. “It depend son whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to my mother. I believe they drowned, I really do,” he said. He believes that the letter is just someone looking to get cancer treatment and isn’t the real John Anglin.

Conspiracies

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As with any great mystery there are plenty of conspiracy theories. One was depicted in a film and suggests that the inmates used an electrical cord to latch onto a passenger ferry that left the island

Myth Busters

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In 2003, Mythbusters tested the escape plan. They concluded that it definitely was possible to make it off the island alive. They even used the same materials that the inmates used for their raft.

Thomas Kent

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Former inmate Thomas Kent made some interesting claims to America’s Most Wanted in 2003. He claimed to be part of the escape plan in Alcatraz but didn’t go through with it because he didn’t know how to swim.

New Details

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Kent also revealed that they planned for Clarence’s girlfriend to meet them on shore with a getaway car. This contradicts West’s story of stealing a car. When it was discovered that Kent was paid to do his interview, people were skeptical of this new information.

The Cover Up

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Originally, the FBI said there weren’t any reports of stolen cars after the escape. In 2011, National Geographic revealed that the FBI had failed to present a number of pieces of evidence during their investigation.

Angel Island

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National Geographic shed light on previously hidden evidence that the inmates made it out of Alcatraz alive. On Angel Island there was a report of a stolen car, footprints on the beach, and remnants of the inmates’ raft.

Where Could They Be?

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We may never know the true fates of Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin. We still don’t know if police ever identified who wrote the note in 2013. If the escaped inmates were alive today, Morris would be 90 years old, John would be 86 and Clarence would be 87. It’s one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

It’s Possible

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People training for triathlons, even when the water is freezing and rough have disproved the possibility of swimming from Alcatraz to land.

John Paul Scott

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On December 16, 1962, Alcatraz inmate John Paul Scott almost successfully swam his way off the island. A bunch of teenagers saw his body about 3 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge, but thought he was dead. When they called the police and they realized who he was, they set him right back to Alcatraz suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia.

Al Capone

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One of the most notable inmates in Alcatraz was mobster Al Capone. He arrived on the island in 1936 but was released in 1939 after being stabbed by another inmate and having a breakdown.