In 1962, three brave prisoners pulled off the impossible when they escaped Alcatraz Island. Even though the case was closed in 1979, experts have been debating the fates of the runaway convicts for years. Now, new developments have surfaced that could change the investigation forever…
Dead Or Alive?
Even though Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin were presumed dead, search teams never actually found conclusive evidence confirming their deaths, and the latest finding further adds to a case for their survival.
An Answer At Last
The FBI assumed that Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin all drowned in the San Fransisco Bay on the night of their escape. Over the years, however, small pieces of evidence have sporadically emerged, offering proof that these men may have somehow survived the frigid waters and strong currents in June, 1962. Now, over 55 years after their escape, an incredible piece of evidence has emerged that could finally provide us with an answer on the fate of these bold prisoners.
The Iconic Island
Alcatraz Island is situated 1.25 miles off the San Fransisco coast. Alcatraz’s precarious location made it the ideal spot to house Civil War POWs in the 1860s. Following the Civil War, the island was modified and fortified, with the addition of a brick jailhouse. Through the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Alcatraz continued to serve as a military prison, housing Spanish-American War POWs and conscientious objectors during World War I. In 1934, Alcatraz was converted to a federal prison.
Ever since Alcatraz became known as “The Rock,” an impenetrable and inescapable federal prison in San Fransisco Bay, 36 inmates took part in 14 separate escape attempts. Out of these 36 brave inmates, 23 were caught before making it to freedom, six were shot and killed by prison or police forces, two drowned in the intense currents of the San Fransisco Bay, and five, including Morris and the Anglin brothers, were never seen again. While these five were presumed drowned by officials, no concrete evidence exists.
Escape From Alcatraz
The incredible escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers from Alcatraz served as inspiration for a 1963 non-fiction book and a 1979 film, both titled Escape From Alcatraz. The book was written by J. Campbell Bruce, and the movie was directed by Don Siegel. With Clint Eastwood starring as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau portraying Clarence Anglin, and Fred Ward playing John Anglin, Escape From Alcatraz gives the audience a glimpse into one of the most miraculous prison escapes of all time.
The Anglin Boys
John and Clarence Anglin were born in Donalsonville, Georgia into a family of 13 kids. Their parents, George Robert Anglin and Rachael Van Miller Anglin, worked as seasonal farmers. The Anglin family split their time between living in Florida, where they worked the tomato fields for most of the year, and Michigan, where they picked cherries every June. As kids, John and Clarence became talented swimmers in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan. Their swimming skills and cold water tolerance would eventually pay off in a big way.
A Life Of Crime
In the early 1950s, the Anglin brothers began committing robberies. John and Clarence never intended to hurt anyone, so they typically went for closed targets. The only “weapon” they ever used was a toy gun. In 1956, the boys were caught and arrested. Both brothers were sentenced to 15-20 years behind bars. After serving time at Florida State Prison, and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the Anglins moved to Atlanta Penitentiary. After multiple failed escape attempts in Atlanta, the Anglins were transferred to Alcatraz in the early 1960s.
Born in Washington D.C., Frank Morris had a rough upbringing. Morris was fostered at 11-years-old and spent a majority of his youth bouncing around different foster homes. Morris had committed his first crime by age 13, and by his late teens had been arrested and convicted for crimes such as narcotics possession and armed robbery. Morris had spent time behind bars in Florida and Georgia and even managed to escape a Louisiana prison in the middle of a 10-year bank robbery sentence.
A Team Effort
After escaping from the Louisiana prison, Frank Morris was recaptured a year later while committing a burglary. In 1960, Morris was shipped off to Alcatraz, where he met the Clarence brothers and another inmate named Allen West, who also had a history of attempted prison escapes. It didn’t take long before the four convicts began plotting a coordinated effort to escape. Even though they knew escaping Alcatraz would be nearly impossible, Morris, West, and the Anglins were up for the challenge.
In December 1961, West, Morris, and the Anglin brothers were assigned adjacent cells, giving them the opportunity to plan their escape. Over the course of six months, the inmates carefully stockpiled everyday materials that would effectively chip away at the ventilation duct and create an opening wide enough to crawl through. The men spent their nights working as quietly and discreetly as possible, covering their hard labor with cardboard and paint each morning so that the guards wouldn’t suspect a thing.
Using What They Had
With an intelligence level reportedly ranking among the top 2% of the entire human population, and an IQ of 133, Frank Morris was presumed to be the brains behind the operation. Morris, along with West and the Anglin brothers, demonstrated incredible ingenuity in their escape efforts. Among the tools they used to widen the ventilation ducts in their cells were discarded saw blades found in the prison yard, stolen spoons from the commissary, and even a drill fashioned from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner.
After months of work, the plan was set. First, the men would squeeze through the openings forged in their cells and crawl into the utility space behind. From there, the men would climb to the cell block roof, where they had assembled a makeshift raft and life preservers from stolen raincoats and paddles made from scrap wood and screws. They would then climb down to the water’s edge, where they would inflate the raft using an accordion-like musical instrument and make their escape.
If the inmates wanted to pull off the escape, every minute where the guards weren’t in pursuit would be crucial. To give themselves a headstart, the men used a mixture of soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, and toilet paper to create a home-made paper-mache. They sculpted the mixture into life-like dummy-heads, using real hair from the barbershop. Before escaping, the men placed their fake heads, along with towels and clothing under blankets, creating the illusion that they were fast asleep in bed.
A Crucial Mistake
The preparations were complete, and the men were ready to make their move. On the night of June 11, 1962, Morris, West, and the Anglins set out to make history. West made one crucial mistake. He had noticed that the hole in his cell was crumbling, so he used cement to smooth over the sides. Unfortunately, the cement hardened and made the opening too small to fit through. By the time he managed to get through the hole, his partners were long gone.
One Man Left Behind
West finally arrived on the roof and quickly realized that Morris, the Anglin brothers, and all of the makeshift equipment that the men had prepared were nowhere to be found. With nowhere to run and no way of leaving the island alone, West had no option but to return to his cell. He would later cooperate fully with investigators and provide them with every detail of the inmates’ plan to avoid any punishment for his own involvement in the escape.
Making Their Exit
While West was running into trouble, Morris and the Anglins were executing their plan flawlessly. Guards reportedly heard a loud crash as the three convicts broke through the ventilation shaft and onto the roof, but because no noise followed, the guards assumed it was nothing. The men then brought their 50 lbs of equipment down a kitchen vent pipe to the ground where they scaled two 12-foot barbed wire fences before making it to a spot where guards couldn’t see them on the northeast shore.
Investigators estimated that Morris and the Anglin brothers set out into the thick fog just after 10 o’clock. Their destination was Angel Island, about two miles north of Alcatraz. The dummy heads that the men made from their home-made paper-mache proved to be a valuable step in the escape, as nobody noticed they were missing until the morning of June 12, 1962. By then, all three men were long gone. Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin were never seen again.
On The Chase
For ten days following the disappearance of the three Alcatraz inmates, law enforcement agencies searched the air, land, and sea for any trace the convicts. On June 14th, the Coast Guard found a paddle 200 yards from Angel Island’s southern coast. Later that day and in a nearby location, a search team found a plastic-wrapped wallet with photos, names, and addresses of the Anglins’ family and friends. A week later, authorities found remnants of the raincoats used for the raft and life preservers.
Something In The Water
Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke mentioned that about a month after the 1962 escape attempt, a Norwegian freighter reported spotting what appeared to be a floating body in the ocean roughly 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. “He had on prison clothes—a navy pea coat and a light pair of trousers—similar to what [Alcatraz] prisoners wore. There were no other missing people during that time period,” said Dyke. This was the strongest piece of evidence pointing towards drowning that investigators would find.
Gone Without A Trace
Even though law enforcement agencies came across various pieces of evidence confirming the escape of Morris and the Anglins, they failed to find any human remains or concrete physical proof of the convicts’ whereabouts. West had reported that the men planned on stealing clothes and a car once they reached Angel Island, but no theft reports were reported in the area after the escape. The FBI was stumped. Was it possible that the men survived the strong current and frigid water?
Beating The Odds
After a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed the file of the three convicts on December 31, 1979, determining that the runaway prisoners most likely drowned in the frigid waters and brutal current. In 2014, a team of Dutch researchers decided to use computer models to simulate the bay’s conditions on the night of the escape and determine the prisoners’ likelihood of survival. The researchers concluded that the men actually did have a legitimate chance of surviving, but only if they left Alcatraz Island between 11 PM and midnight.
The Anglin Family Steps Forward
In 2012, 50 years after the infamous attempted escape, two of the Anglins’ sisters and two of their nephews went public and announced their belief that John and Clarence were still alive. Marie Anglin Winder stated that, not long after the escape in 1962, she received a brief phone call where the caller said, “This is John Anglin.” Additionally, the Anglin family received a Christmas card in 1962 which read, “To Mother, from John. Merry Christmas.” Authorities then confirmed that there was, in fact, a chance that the runaway convicts survived.
Piecing The Puzzle Together
In 2015, the History Channel produced a documentary providing a substantial amount of evidence favoring the prisoners’ survival. Their testimony included Christmas cards with handwriting matching that of the Anglin brothers which were sent to the Anglin family for three years after the escape. The documentary also provided a story and accompanying photo from Fred Brizzi, a family friend of the Anglins, claiming they were living in Brazil. Also, a deathbed confession from another Anglin sibling stated that the brothers had remained in contact from 1963 until 1987.
Brizzi’s Trip To Brazil
This photo, taken by Fred Brizzi, provided evidence that the Anglin brothers may have made it South America. Brizzi was visiting Rio De Janeiro in 1975 when he ran into the Anglins standing by a farm. Brizzi took a photograph of the brothers, which he planned to show to the Anglin family and let them know their boys were alive. Because Brizzi knew the investigation was ongoing at the time, he needed to wait until 1992 to send the photo to the Anglins. Brizzi died a year later.
Credibility In Question
Even though Brizzi’s photo was “absolutely the best actionable lead we’ve had,” according to Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Roderick, the investigators had their doubts. Roderick added that “it could still all be a nice story which isn’t true.” Another Deputy Marshal named Michael Dyke stated that because Brizzi himself was a drug smuggler and con-man, authorities should be hesitant to trust his information. After all, he could just be trying to steer the investigation away from the Anglins’ actual location.
A New Lead?
The U.S. Marshals service hired an expert to analyze Brizzi’s photograph and compare physical features and measurements shown in the photo to what they knew about the Anglins in 1962. Based on what they saw, the experts believed that there was a high likelihood that the men photographed by Brizzi were, in fact, the Anglin brothers. Unfortunately, the fact that they were wearing sunglasses prevented a definitive conclusion. However, new evidence would soon emerge that would shake the entire investigation to its core…
A Breakthrough 50 Years In The Making
In January of 2018, a letter surfaced that was originally sent to San Fransisco Police Department’s Richmond station back in 2013. The letter, which was reportedly written by John Anglin, stated that Morris, and the Anglin brothers “barely” made it to shore on the night of their escape. The author of the letter went on to explain that Morris died in 2008 and Clarence died in 2011. After the brief introduction, the letter went on to ask for something that no one saw coming…
The letter read, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely! 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.”
For the time being, the U.S. Marshals is the only agency still conducting an active investigation on the case. If the letter was, in fact, written by John Anglin, the case could potentially be re-opened by the FBI. Investigators have their doubts, however. After the letter surfaced, the U.S. Marshals Service released a statement saying, “There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens after this escape.”
Experts who compared the letter’s handwriting to that of John Anglin’s, and to the Christmas cards which the Anglin family received noted consistency and the likelihood that it was legitimate. If the letter was written by John Anglin, and if the escaped convict is still alive, he would now be in his late 80s. While we may never find out who actually wrote the letter, we can’t help but wonder if he really did manage to escape the “escape-proof” prison…